What you might have missed: self aware babies, autonomous excavators, blood physics and female science

Babies (wearing EEG caps) are self-aware at 4 months

Baby with eeg cap
A baby wearing an EEG cap for the study. Pictured with parent. Credit: University of Birmingham.

Babies just 4 months old can understand how their body interacts with the world around them, according to a study in Scientific Reports.

“Even in the first few months of life, before babies have even learned to reach for objects, the multisensory brain is wired up to make links between what babies see and what they feel,” says Dr Giulia Orioli, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham, UK.

“This means they can sense the space around them and understand how their bodies interact with that space. This is sometimes referred to as peripersonal space.”

Orioli and colleagues hooked babies up to EEG caps that measured their brain activity while they watched a video of a ball rolling towards them. When the ball appeared to get closest, a device vibrated on their hands (suggesting touch), and this triggered brain activity suggesting something tactile.

Without the ball video, the brain activity didn’t happen.

“It is a challenge working with newborns, as they spend such a large portion of their time sleeping and eating, but we are starting to have some success working with this age group, and it is going to be fascinating to see if babies only a few days old have the foundations of a sense of their bodies in space. If so, it could be that we are looking at the origins of human consciousness,” says Orioli.

Autonomous robot builds a giant wall

Aerial view of dry stone wall in park
Aerial view of the Circularity Park in Oberglatt at Eberhard AG, 2021-2022 © Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich, Eberhard AG. Photo: Marc Schneider

Swiss researchers used an excavator called HEAP (hydraulic excavator for an autonomous purpose) to build a 6m high dry stone wall, as part of an autonomously excavated park.

The excavator uses sensors to draw a map of the construction site and find stones to use for building.

It then scans every stone it picks up, figuring out weight, shape, and centre of gravity, and calculates where it will best fit in a wall. Then it places each rock.

A paper describing the research is published in Science Robotics.

“Robotic automation of stone masonry construction has the potential to restore the widespread feasibility of a task that otherwise requires expensive and time-consuming expertise on site, allowing for the use of nontoxic, low-energy, local, and natural materials that can reflect regional vernacular traditions and provide an improved sense of place,” write the authors in their paper.

Excavator picking up large rock
The Menzi Muck picks and scans each boulder to be placed in the correct position, Circularity Park in Oberglatt, Eberhard AG, 2021-2022 © Gramazio Kohler Research, ETH Zurich, Eberhard AG. Photo: Marc Schneider

Bloodstain tails give vital clues to crime scenes

Blood pattern analysis is a useful way to reconstruct crime scenes and now forensic analysts are getting better at using it.

A team of US researchers have established new physics about the way blood droplets form, allowing more insight into crime scenes.

The research, published in Physics of Fluids, centres around the “tail” of bloodstains: when blood hits a surface at an angle, it tends to form an elliptical drop with a protrusion at one end.

“These protrusions are typically only used to get a sense of the direction that the drop travelled, but are otherwise neglected,” says study co-author author James Bird, an associate professor at Boston University.

Bird and colleagues found, using high-speed experiments, that the length of the tail can tell scientists about the size, speed, and angle of the blood droplet.

“The tail lengths encompass additional independent information that can help analysts reconstruct where the blood drop actually came from,” says Bird.

Six different blood drops with timestamps
A tiny drop of blood during the millisecond it impacts a solid surface and develops the shape the stain. Of particular interest is the protrusion that develops on the right side and deviates from the otherwise elliptical stain boundary. Credit: James C. Bird

Tiny nature reserves get some help from night moths

Plants in small nature reserves can struggle to attract the pollinators they need to propagate, but a study reported in Austral Ecology has found that nocturnal moths can pick up the pace.

“Our study found that a variety of night-flying moths, including species common in the Adelaide Hills, visited the flowers and carried pollen of this plant across small and large conservation reserves,” says lead author Dr Alex Blackall, a recent PhD graduate from Flinders University.

“We found that reproduction of this plant in small reserves was similar to that measured in larger reserves of native vegetation.”

This highlights the importance of small nature reserves.

“Whether plants are able to successfully reproduce and survive long-term in such small patches is not always clear and lower plant reproduction in smaller patches of vegetation would certainly be of conservation concern,” says Blackall.

Nature reserve
Native Eucalyptus forest growing in the field site located in Nurrutti Reserve – the smallest conservation reserve used in the study, at 1.40 ha.

Female scientists are still less likely to get cited, but gap is closing

After analysing 5.8 million authors of scientific papers, a team of US researchers has found the gender gap is closing – but slowly.

The study is published in PLOS Biology.

The researchers found that 3.8 million of the authors were male, and 2.0 million were female. Men were nearly 4 times more likely to be an author before 1992, but only 1.36 times more likely to be authors after 2011.

“Our work documents substantial shrinkage over time of the inequalities between men and women in the top echelons of scientific citation impact, but there is substantial room for further improvements in most scientific fields,” says lead author Professor John Ioannidis, from Stanford University.

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