WTF Fun Fact 13536 – Digitizing Smell

In order to smell, our brains and noses have to work together, so the idea of digitizing smell seems pretty “out there.”

However, if you think about it, our noses are sensing molecules. Those molecules can be identified by a computer, and the smells the humans associated with them can be cataloged. It’s not quite teaching a computer to smell on its own, but maybe it’s best we don’t give them too many human abilities.

The Enigma of Olfaction

While we’ve successfully translated light into sight and sound into hearing, decoding the intricate world of smell remains a challenge.

Olfaction, compared to our other senses, is mysterious, diverse, and deeply rooted in both emotion and memory. Knowing this, can we teach machines to interpret this elusive sense?

Digitizing Smell

A collaboration between the Monell Chemical Senses Center and the startup Osmo aimed to bridge the gap between airborne chemicals and our brain’s odor perception. Their objective was not just to understand the science of smell better but to make a machine proficient enough to describe, in human terms, what various chemicals smell like.

Osmo, with roots in Google’s advanced research division, embarked on creating a machine-learning model. The foundation of this model was an industry dataset, which detailed the molecular structures and scent profiles of 5,000 known odorants.

The idea? Feed the model a molecule’s shape and get a descriptive prediction of its smell.

That might sound simple, but the team had to make sure they could ensure the model’s accuracy.

The Litmus Test: Man vs. Machine

To validate the machine’s “sense of smell,” a unique test was devised.

A group of 15 panelists, trained rigorously using specialized odor kits, was tasked with describing 400 unique odors. The model then predicted descriptions for the same set.

Astonishingly, the machine’s predictions often matched or even outperformed individual human assessments, showcasing its unprecedented accuracy.

Machines That Can ‘Smell’ vs. Digitizing Smell

Beyond its core training, the model displayed unexpected capabilities. It accurately predicted odor strength, a feature it wasn’t explicitly trained for, and identified distinct molecules with surprisingly similar scents. This accomplishment suggests we’re inching closer to a world where machines can reliably “smell.”

But for now, that’s overstating it. The team has made a major leap towards digitizing smell. But machines don’t have senses. They can only replicate the kind of information our brains produce when we smell things. Of course, they don’t have any sense of enjoyment (or repulsion) at certain smells.

In any case, the Monell and Osmo collaboration has significantly advanced our journey in understanding and replicating the sense of smell. As we move forward, this research could revolutionize industries from perfumery to food and beyond.

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Source: “A step closer to digitizing the sense of smell: Model describes odors better than human panelists” — Science Daily

WTF Fun Fact 13534 – The Roundest Object in the World

When it comes to spherical perfection, nothing we’ve ever discovered in space beats Kepler-11145123, the roundest object in the world. This distant star is located about 5,000 light-years away from Earth.

What Defines “Round”?

Before diving into Kepler-11145123, it’s essential to understand what we mean by “round.” Most celestial objects take on a somewhat spherical shape due to the gravitational forces pulling matter toward their centers. However, the force of their rotation tends to squash them at the poles and widen them at the equator, causing an oblate spheroid shape. The difference between the equatorial and polar diameters of a celestial body measures its “roundness.”

Kepler-11145123 was initially discovered as part of NASA’s Kepler mission, designed to find exoplanets by observing stars and the tiny dimming caused by planets passing in front of them. While that was Kepler’s primary task, its trove of data fueled other groundbreaking research as well. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany used these precise observations to study the star’s oscillations, which provided clues about its internal structure and, fascinatingly, its shape.

A Surprising Level of Perfection

What truly sets Kepler-11145123 apart is the astonishingly small difference between its equatorial and polar diameters. The star’s equatorial diameter exceeds its polar diameter by a mere 3 km, despite having a diameter of 1.5 million km overall. This difference is microscopic on a cosmic scale and represents an unprecedented level of spherical perfection. For context, the disparity between the Earth’s equatorial and polar diameters is about 42 km, a figure that suddenly feels gigantic compared to this distant star.

The Science Behind the Shape

Kepler-11145123’s almost-perfect roundness is intriguing and prompts the question: how did it get so round? One leading hypothesis is that magnetic fields within the star could be redistributing mass, making it more spherical. However, researchers also point out that the star’s slow rotation rate plays a significant role. The slower an object rotates, the less it gets flattened due to centrifugal forces. Kepler-11145123 spins at a much slower rate than our Sun, thus maintaining its almost perfect shape.

Broader Implications of Being the Roundest Object in the World

The discovery of Kepler-11145123’s unique shape has broader implications for our understanding of astrophysics. It forces scientists to reevaluate models of star evolution, as well as the role magnetic fields play in shaping celestial bodies. Furthermore, this finding might have implications for exoplanet studies. A star’s shape can influence the stability of its planetary orbits, which in turn could have consequences for planetary climates and habitability.

Why Should We Care About the Roundest Object in the World?

Apart from the sheer wonder of discovering such a perfectly round object in space, understanding Kepler-11145123 can help scientists refine their models of stellar behavior and evolution. These models are fundamental to our grasp of the universe, from the life cycles of stars to the forces that shape galaxies. The more accurate our models become, the better we can understand a host of other phenomena, including potentially habitable exoplanets.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “Distant star Kepler 11145123 is the roundest object ever observed in nature” — Astronomy Now

WTF Fun Fact 13523 – Narwhal Tusks

The narwhal is often referred to as the “unicorn of the sea.” The creature has long fascinated scientists and the public alike with its iconic spiraling tusk. However, recent research reveals that these tusks are not just ornamental; they serve as invaluable biological records.

Just like tree rings can tell us about environmental conditions, the growth rings in a narwhal’s tusk can shed light on the animal’s diet and the changes in its environment.

Studying Narwhal Tusks

An international team of scientists conducted a study by examining ten narwhal tusks obtained from Inuit hunters in northwest Greenland. The tusks, which are actually elongated canine teeth found only in males, were cut in half lengthwise to reveal their growth rings. Each ring represented one year in the life of the narwhal. By analyzing these rings, scientists could gain a unique window into the life history of these Arctic mammals.

Scientists discovered that narwhals’ diets have changed in response to the environmental changes in the Arctic. This change is partly due to the shrinking of sea ice.

They measured levels of mercury, as well as stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen within each ring. Doing so helped them decipher the types of prey the narwhals had consumed in different years. These markers provided a snapshot of the narwhals’ diets and indicated how high their prey sat on the food chain.

The Narwhal Diet

The researchers found that until the 1990s, when the ice cover in the Arctic was still “extensive but varying,” narwhals primarily fed on sea-ice-adjacent prey like halibut and Arctic cod. However, as the ice cover started to decline between 1990 and 2000, narwhals began to consume more open ocean species. These included such species as capelin and polar cod.

These open ocean species sit lower on the food chain. This was reflected in lower mercury levels in the tusk layers for those particular years.

What’s concerning is that even though narwhals’ diets remained relatively consistent after the year 2000, mercury levels in their tusks started to rise significantly. This increase is thought to be linked to increased coal combustion emissions from southeast Asia. This revelation raises concerns about how pollutants from human activities are affecting even the most remote ecosystems on Earth.

Prof. Rune Dietz of Denmark’s Aarhus University pointed out that tusks in museums around the world represent an untapped data bank. An analysis of these could provide critical insights into how narwhals have adapted to changes over different periods and in different regions. This could lay the foundation for assessing how they are likely to cope with ongoing environmental shifts.

What We Can Learn

This study underscores the importance of understanding how climate change and human activities are affecting marine ecosystems. It shows how even seemingly unrelated things—like coal combustion in one part of the world—can have a ripple effect that impacts the diet and health of animals living in a completely different region.

Narwhal tusks serve as natural archives. They can reveal the complex interplay between marine biology, environmental change, and even global industrial activities. And they’re helping researchers stitch together a more complete understanding of the Arctic ecosystem.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “Narwhal tusk rings reveal valuable environmental data” — New Atlas

WTF Fun Fact 13508 – Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum

If you know a kid obsessed with dinosaurs, you may have heard of Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum. If not, you should let that kid know about this creature immediately because it’s pretty cool.

The Discovery and Classification of Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum

When we think of the most impressive creatures that ever roamed the Earth, our minds often dart to the giants of the Mesozoic Era – the mighty dinosaurs. Among these behemoths, one dinosaur stands out for the astounding length of just one part of its anatomy: its neck.

Meet the Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum, a species of dinosaur that boasted a neck almost 50 feet long. That’s a neck six times longer than that of today’s tallest land animal, the giraffe!

Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum belongs to a group of dinosaurs called the sauropods. They are recognized by their long necks, long tails, and massive bodies supported by four thick, pillar-like legs. Although several sauropods had impressively long necks, the Mamenchisaurus goes well beyond the rest!

The species was unearthed in China and was a significant find for paleontologists. These findings provided more information about the diverse world of sauropods and the different evolutionary paths they might have taken.

A Neck to Marvel At

At nearly 50 feet long, the neck of Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum was a true wonder of nature. To put it into perspective, that’s longer than a school bus and almost as long as a bowling lane! But what evolutionary benefits did such a lengthy neck provide?

Foraging Strategy
With such an extended reach, this dinosaur could access food sources that were out of reach for other herbivores. This reduced the competition for food. It also allowed the creature to graze over a larger area without having to move its massive body frequently.

Cooling Mechanism
Some theories suggest that a long neck could have served as a cooling mechanism. The large surface area could have helped dissipate heat. This may have been vital for such massive creatures that might have struggled to maintain an optimal body temperature.

Display and Mating
In the animal kingdom, impressive physical features often play a role in mating displays. Though speculative, it’s possible that longer necks might have been seen as more attractive or dominant. This would help individuals with longer necks secure a mate.

The Anatomy Behind the Length

The length and weight of such a neck would require robust support and respiratory systems. Vertebrae would have been elongated and possibly hollowed in sections to reduce weight. Air sacs might have been present to aid in breathing, similar to modern birds. The neck’s muscle and tendon structure would also need to be incredibly strong. But it would also have to be flexible to support and maneuver this impressive length.

Comparing Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum to the Modern Giraffe

Modern-day giraffe necks measure approximately 8 feet in length and pale in comparison to the neck of the Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum. However, both animals show that evolution can lead to some astounding anatomical features when they provide an advantage.

It’s intriguing to imagine how these two creatures, separated by millions of years, navigated their habitats with such long necks.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “This Dinosaur Had a 50-Foot-Long Neck, Scientists Say” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 13481 – Shanidar 1

Shanidar 1, affectionately known as “Nandy” to some, lived approximately 45,000 to 35,000 years ago. His Neanderthal remains, found in Iraq’s Shanidar Cave, provide researchers with a wealth of information about Neanderthal life and society. These findings challenge our preconceptions and encourage a fresh understanding of our ancient relatives.

The Life of Shanidar 1

American archaeologist Ralph Solecki and his team discovered Shanidar 1 during excavations from 1957 to 1961. The cave, located in the Zagros Mountains, held a plethora of archaeological treasures. The team unearthed remains of eight adult and two infant Neanderthals, identifying Shanidar 1 first.

Shanidar 1’s remains reveal a life of hardship and resilience. He was an older adult, likely around 40-50 years old when he died, an advanced age for a Neanderthal. Remarkably, Shanidar 1 suffered several injuries and health issues. His right arm withered, likely due to nerve damage, and he probably lost the use of it several years before his death. He also had a damaged left eye that might have caused blindness. Signs of a significant blow to his face suggest that he lived with considerable pain.

Shanidar 1’s traumas and his survival into adulthood suggest that Neanderthal societies likely provided social care. His disabilities would have made self-care and hunting difficult, so it’s plausible that his group cared for him. This observation challenges previous notions of Neanderthals as primitive beings and suggests a society with empathy and cooperative care.

Understanding Neanderthal Health

Shanidar 1’s remains also offer insights into Neanderthal health. He displayed significant wear and tear, such as degenerative joint disease, likely common in Neanderthal populations due to a physically demanding lifestyle. His dental health, with several lost and worn teeth, hints at the Neanderthal diet, which was probably abrasive and tough.

Shanidar 1’s discovery in the cave sparked interest in Neanderthal burial practices. Pollen found around his body hinted at the possibility of a burial ritual with flowers, though this interpretation has sparked debate. Despite the controversy, the idea has become popular, creating an image of Neanderthals as “flower-buriers,” capable of symbolic thought and ritualistic behavior.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “Older Neanderthal survived with a little help from his friends” — ScienceDaily

WTF Fun Fact 13480 – Convinced of a Crime You Didn’t Commit

It only takes a few hours for you to be convinced of a crime you didn’t commit. It’s a well-known psychological phenomenon.

This isn’t so much a “fun fact” as one that’s kind of awful if you really think about it. And it certainly has implications for questioning crime suspects (or perpetrating psychological abuse).

The criminal justice system relies heavily on the accuracy of human memory and the credibility of its testimonies. Yet, human memory is highly malleable and susceptible to suggestions and false implants. Some wrongful conviction cases suggest that innocent suspects, when questioned using certain tactics, can be led to believe and confess to committing crimes they never did.

This concept goes beyond our typical understanding of “false confessions.” It underscores the potential of forming vivid, detailed false memories of perpetrating serious crimes.

Can You Really Be Convinced of a Crime You Didn’t Commit?

A 2015 study psychologists published in the journal Psychological Science explains it all. It shows how someone can convince innocent participants they had committed crimes as grave as assault with a weapon in their teenage years. (In the years since, more research has corroborated the possibility.)

Lead psychological scientist Julia Shaw from the University of Bedfordshire, UK led the study. She found that a certain type of questioning can help generate these false memories relatively easily. Her team used a friendly interview environment, introduced a few incorrect details, and applied poor memory-retrieval techniques. (Note – the students in the study volunteered, and an ethics review board assesses research plans).

For the study, the research team first contacted the caregivers of university students. They asked them to fill out questionnaires about specific events the students might have experienced from ages 11 to 14. And they instructed them not to discuss the questions with the student/subject.

The researchers then subjected the students to three 40-minute interviews about two events from their teenage years. One real and one was falsely constructed, but included some true details from their past.

The Surprising Results

The findings were startling. Out of the 30 participants told they had committed a crime as a teenager, 21 (or 71%) developed a false memory of the “crime”! A similar proportion, 76.67%, formed false memories of an emotional event they were told about.

The criminal false events seemed just as believable as the emotional ones. Students gave the same number of details, and reported similar levels of confidence, vividness, and sensory detail for both types of events.

Shaw and co-author Stephen Porter hypothesized that incorporating true details into a supposedly corroborated account probably provided enough familiarity to make the false event plausible.

However, there were slight differences in the memories for false events and true events. For example, participants reported more details and confidence in their descriptions of the true memories.

Implications and Applications

These findings emphasize the fundamental malleability of memory. The implications extend to various fields, notably criminal justice, legal procedures, and even therapeutic settings. They indicate the need for vigilance in situations where memory recollection is key. Clearly, the innocent can be led to generate rich false memories of emotional and criminal events!

The knowledge that innocent individuals can be led to create complex false memories quite easily serves as a cautionary tale. And it’s one that hopefully influences the interview techniques that could induce them.

This research also underscores the need for further investigations into the specific interview tactics that contribute to false memories. Understanding these factors can help improve interviewing procedures, and in turn, the integrity of our legal system.

Memory, a cornerstone of our identity and experiences, can be surprisingly plastic and fallible. By studying and understanding its limitations, we can better protect ourselves from the potential distortions. This is part of ensuring a more reliable justice system, and fostering better practices in situations where the accuracy of memory is critical.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened” — Psychological Science

WTF Fun Fact 13451 – Shape-Shifting Robot

You’ve seen robotic dogs, humanoid robots that can do backflips, etc. – but have you seen the new shape-shifting robots? Just what the world needs, right? Well…maybe!

Do shape-shifting robots really exist?

They do exist, but they’re small – and they’re certainly not a threat. Although we don’t exactly love the headline from EurekAlert “Watch this person-shaped robot liquify and escape jail, all with the power of magnets.” But whatever. Like all robots, they’re pretty cool, aside from their (granted, far-fetched) potential to destroy us all.

This robot can indeed transform, liquefy itself, slip into the smallest crevices, and then reassemble with absolute precision. The shape-shifting robot creators drew inspiration from a sea cucumber.

What do a sea cucumber and a shape-shifting robot have in common?

Sea cucumbers have a unique ability—they can alter their stiffness rapidly and reversibly. This is the fascinating biological phenomenon that the researchers hoped to replicate in their robotic system.

Traditional robots, with their rigid bodies, lack the flexibility to navigate small spaces. There are “softer” robots, but while they’re more pliable, are often weaker and harder to control. So, to overcome these challenges, the team aimed to create a robot that could oscillate between being a solid and a liquid.

The new breed of robot is an alloy of gallium—a metal with a low melting point—and includes embedded magnetic particles. The particles allow the robot to respond to magnetic fields, which scientists can use to control its movement and induce changes in its state—from solid to liquid and vice versa.

The team from Carnegie Mellon University christened their groundbreaking creation the “magnetoactive solid-liquid phase transitional machine.” Catchy!

The power of transformation

In a magnetic field, the robot can jump, stretch, climb walls, and even solder a circuit board. Its most impressive trick? The ability to liquefy and squeeze itself out of a mock prison—only to solidify once again on the outside. When in solid state, this robot can bear weights 30 times its own, demonstrating remarkable strength and flexibility.

Interestingly, the shapeshifting robot might have potential applications in the medical field. In a proof-of-concept experiment, the robot successfully removed a ball from a model of a human stomach. It quickly moved to the ball, melted around it, reformed, and exited the model stomach—ball in tow.

Although gallium was the metal of choice in these experiments, other metals could be introduced to adjust the melting point for real-life applications.

Future applications

Looking ahead, the gallium robots could serve a variety of purposes. From assembling and repairing hard-to-reach circuits to acting as a universal screw that melts and reforms to fit any socket, the possibilities seem endless.

The technology might have significant biomedical applications as well. For instance, these robots could deliver drugs inside a patient’s body or remove foreign objects. However, before any in-human application, tracking the robot’s position within a patient’s body is a hurdle scientists need to overcome.

Who knows, maybe a doctor will ask you to swallow a shape-shifting robot someday. What a thing to look forward to!

Wanna see the robot melt and reconstitute? Someone set it to some soothing music on YouTube:

 WTF fun facts

Source: “This Shape-Shifting Robot Can Liquefy Itself and Reform” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 13437 – Nuclear Pasta

Luckily, nuclear pasta is not coming to a dinner plate near you.

Imagine the densest material in the universe. It’s far harder than a diamond. In fact, this stuff is ten billion times stronger. Nestled in the heart of a neutron star, there’s a material that goes by the name: nuclear pasta.

Why is it called nuclear pasta?

Welcome to the most outlandish, mind-boggling part of astrophysics. Neutron stars, the remnants of massive stars that exploded as supernovae, pack twice the mass of our sun into a sphere just 20 kilometers in diameter. As a result, these objects have some truly wild properties.

If you were to dig into the heart of a neutron star, you’d see layers of complexity. As you delve deeper, things get denser and denser. Around halfway to the center, the density of the material becomes so great that the atomic nuclei become squished into a variety of shapes. Scientists believe they resemble pasta types, hence the nickname.

But what makes this stuff special?

According to research, these are likely the densest and hardest substances in the universe. In fact, one sugar cube of nuclear pasta would weigh as much as a mountain.

Theoretical physicists and astrophysicists have been trying to simulate nuclear pasta to better understand its properties. According to a 2018 study, nuclear pasta may be the strongest material in the universe. It’s not only incredibly dense but also has a shearing resistance tougher than steel’s.

This immense density results in intense gravitational fields, causing the pasta shapes to align themselves into an incredibly tight lattice structure. This structure could play a crucial role in various neutron star phenomena, including starquakes, glitches, and even gravitational waves.

Interestingly, nuclear pasta doesn’t exist naturally on Earth, and for a good reason – it’s way too dense and strong for our environment. But the fact that it exists in the universe opens up a whole new realm of physics.

Discovering the existence of nuclear pasta is also vital for understanding neutron stars better. These stars are not only fascinating in their own right but also play a crucial role in the life cycles of galaxies. Understanding more about neutron stars could, therefore, lead to insights about how galaxies, including our own Milky Way, evolve over time.

There’s still so much to learn about neutron stars. But one thing’s for sure – the universe is full of fantastic and surprising structures!

 WTF fun facts

Source: “What is nuclear pasta?” — BBC Sky at Night Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 13375 – Alpha Brain Waves and Creativity

The relationship between alpha brain waves and creativity has long fascinated researchers and people seeking to tap into their creative potential. While findings are not yet conclusive, evidence suggests that alpha brainwaves may play a role in facilitating creative thinking and idea generation.

What’s the connection between alpha brain waves and creativity?

Brain waves are rhythmic patterns of neural activity that researchers measure with electroencephalography (EEG). Different brainwave frequencies seem to correspond to specific states of consciousness, such as alertness, relaxation, or deep sleep.

Alpha brain waves have a frequency range of 8 to 12 hertz. They are commonly observed when individuals are in a relaxed and calm, but wakeful, state. These brain waves are most prominent when the eyes are closed, during meditative states, or when relaxing. While the exact relationship between alpha brainwaves and creativity is still being explored, several studies have indicated a potential connection.

One theory suggests that alpha brain waves may facilitate creative thinking by promoting a state of relaxed attention and reducing external distractions. When individuals are in this relaxed state, they may be more open to making connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. This can foster divergent thinking—the ability to generate a wide range of novel ideas.

Creativity is complex

The exact mechanisms underlying the relationship between alpha brain waves and creativity remain unclear. So it’s important to approach these findings with caution. Creativity is a multifaceted and complex phenomenon that involves various cognitive processes, environmental factors, and individual differences.

The role of alpha brain waves, although intriguing, is just one piece of the puzzle. Moreover, it’s worth noting that creativity is not solely dependent on alpha brainwave activity. Research also suggests that theta and gamma brainwave frequencies play a role in creative thinking.

Additionally, factors such as domain expertise, knowledge, motivation, and environmental influences all contribute to the creative process. Despite the ongoing scientific exploration, some individuals have reported subjective experiences that align with the potential benefits of alpha brainwave activity on creativity.

Relaxing for creativity

Many artists, writers, and musicians claim to enter a “flow” state—an optimal state of consciousness characterized by effortless focus, heightened creativity, and a sense of being in the zone—when their minds are relaxed and receptive. While the research is still developing, there are practical strategies that individuals can explore to potentially harness the benefits of alpha brainwave activity.

Researchers associate practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and deep relaxation techniques with an increase in alpha waves and may create a conducive mental state for creative thinking. Additionally, creating an environment that minimizes distractions while promoting relaxation—such as quiet spaces, nature settings, or dedicated creative zones—may facilitate a relaxed state of mind and potentially enhance creative output.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “How brain waves enable creative thinking” — Medical News Today