About Chris Riley

I'm a middle school science teacher in New Jersey.

What does it mean to be self-aware?

That is the question that some scientists are coming back to. There is a test to see if an animal is self-aware: the mirror test. First scientists put a mirror in the environment so the animal can get familiar with it. Then they put a mark on their body that they can only see in the mirror. It’s evidence for self-awareness if they look in the mirror and then touch that part of their body.

Human can do this when they’re about 2 years old. Many other primates also pass. So do elephants, and 1 bird, the magpie. Some scientists disagree that they elephants and magpies really passed.

And now, there’s another possible species that might be considered self-aware: The cleaner wrasse. This is an intelligent, very social, fish that lives in coral reefs. Researchers gave some the mirror test, and some of them passed. The injected a bit of color under the scales around the “chin” of the fish, and after seeing their reflection, they tried to scrape their chin on the sandy bottom, something they do to remove irritants.

The researchers had a lot of trouble getting their paper published, possibly due to resistance in the scientific community to admitting that a fish can be self-aware. Many scientists doubt the results of this experiment, thinking that the fish’s behavior doesn’t show self-awareness.

Just what this experiment means has yet to be decided, but it’s very interesting.

Science being suppressed at the Department of the Interior

It’s not a surprise that the Trump administration doesn’t pay attention to science. But at the Interior Department, it’s so bad that the Union of Concerned Scientists have written a report about it.

The current administration has been

  • Systematically suppressing science
  • Failing to acknowledge or act on climate change
  • Silencing or intimidating agency scientists and staff
  • Attacking science-based laws that protect wildlife

As a science educator, this willful dismissal of evidence and attitude that politics is more important than reality upsets me greatly. I hope that soon my government will come to its senses and pay attention to the world around us.

3D printing meat

This is really cool. A researcher has developed a way to 3-D print “meat”. I say “meat” because while it tastes like meat, it’s really made of rice, peas, and seaweed protein.

The food that is made looks like meat, tastes almost like meat, and has a meat-like texture. Since it’s not actually made from animals it is more sustainable than farming animals. It’s also inexpensive, only costing $3 to make 100 g of this. The price would go down if done in industrial scales.

This is just one of the ways that food is being 3-D printed.

The food industry has had various encounters with 3D printing. Previously, the University of Washington’s researchers presented a novel way to ferment yeast with a 3D printer. Prior to this, Germany’s Biozoon has 3D printed ‘Smoothfood’ to help feed the elderly. Furthermore, Munich-based chemical company Wacker its new “Candy2Gum” process which uses food resins, to make chewing gum.

How can you look in your own lungs?

I mean, without using an X-Ray. Recently a person was able to do just that, though I expect it wasn’t pleasant. A 36 year old man went into an ICU with acute heart failure. Later that week, he coughed up a blood clot consisting of much of the right bronchial tree. In later examination, doctors saw a small amount of blood in his lung, so this clot was blood that had bled into the bronchial tubes, and clotted there.

Research shows that old people may end up believing their own lies

A new study shows that older people are more susceptible to believing their own lies as the truth within an hour of telling the lie. They had both young and old participants lie about doing an activity while their brainwaves were measured by an EEG. The older cohort was significantly more likely to believe the lie as truth.

The bottom line is that lying alters memory.

A plane with no moving parts

That is, no propeller, no turbines, no elevators, etc. Nada. Zilch.

OK. You and I have made airplanes like that: paper airplanes. But what about a plane that is self-powered, but still doesn’t have any moving parts? Well, MIT made such a thing, and it doesn’t even need black magic.

They use high voltage wires in front of and behind the wings to strip electrons off of nearby air molecules, and then pull those molecules to the rear. This “ionic wind” generates enough thrust to power the aircraft.

Granted, the plane itself only weighs 5 pounds, and didn’t fly far, but this is a pretty groundbreaking achievement.

Who talks about the past? Not just us.

Other than humans, there is only one animal that we know about that talks about events that have already happened (the past): Orangutans. Orangutans make a certain sound to signal that there is a predator nearby. Scientists have observed orangutans seeing a predator, quietly climbing to safety while carrying her infant, and waiting until it was safe to give the warning.

This delayed warning makes it safer for the infant, and indicates a greater intelligence than only communicating about events that are currently happening.

 “The mother saw the predator as most dangerous to her youngster and chose not to call until it was gone,” he says. Then, and only then, did she provide information, letting the infant learn about the danger that had passed, the team reports today in Science Advances.

Potential long-term treatment for type 2 diabetes

According to this article at The Guardian, the Dutch have done a trial with 50 subjects with type 2 diabetes underwent an hour-long procedure that involved destroying the mucus membranes of the small intestine (probably not the whole small intestine, most likely the jejunum). In 2 weeks the body replaces the missing mucus membrane. After 1 year, 90% of patients still have stable blood sugar levels. It’s unknown yet if this can be a permanent treatment, or if the procedure needs to be repeated regularly.

Helium is weird

Helium is a very strange beastie. With most elements, if you cool it down enough, it will turn into a solid. The molecules will slow down, and then lock into place. But helium does very strange things when you cool it down enough, including refusing to solidify as you approach absolute zero.

Of course, this is all the fault of quantum mechanics, which has the somewhat annoying property of being totally counterintuitive and also matching all experiments to see whether it’s true or not. At the atomic level, things are just weird.

Some of the weird things that helium does when you get it cold enough, cold enough to turn it into a superfluid, are: climb up walls, fit through microscopic cracks that it can’t fit through as a regular liquid, and make a superfluid fountain.

It turns out we’re teaching reading all wrong

Do you like to read? I love to. But many people don’t. It may just be that they weren’t taught properly how to read.

People are born wired to talk and communicate. But not to read.

Another big takeaway from decades of scientific research is that, while we use our eyes to read, the starting point for reading is sound. What a child must do to become a reader is to figure out how the words she hears and knows how to say connect to letters on the page. Writing is a code humans invented to represent speech sounds. Kids have to crack that code to become readers.

The best way to learn is to associate the sounds of words: phonics. When you know how to sound out a word, you can connect the written word to the word you already know. This makes it easier to read. But for a very long time, reading education was based on the belief that learning to read is natural. It’s not, and we have to change the way we teach kids how to read.