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Monday, Aug 13, 2018
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A Little Perspective: Anonymous lottery winners and birds of prey that spread brushfires

The winning numbers triple-checked and the lottery ticket signed, the New Hampshire woman knew her life was about to change in a very positive way — except for one petrifying thing. As the winner of last month’s $560 million Powerball, she would soon be the world’s newest owner of a nine-digit bank account.

But because of lottery rules, everyone in the world would know about it — neighbors, old high school friends, con artists, criminals. Now the woman is asking a judge to let her keep the cash — and remain anonymous. In court documents she is identified only as Jane Doe.

"She is a longtime resident of New Hampshire and is an engaged community member," the woman’s attorney, Steven Gordon, wrote in the court documents. "She wishes to continue this work and the freedom to walk into a grocery store or attend public events without being known or targeted as the winner of a half-billion dollars."

On one side of the case are lottery officials who say the integrity of the games depends on the public identification of its winners as a protection against fraud and malfeasance. A local woman holding up a giant check while cameras flash and reporters scrawl also happens to be a powerful marketing tool.

On the other side is a woman suddenly faced with a life-changing stroke of luck who, court documents say, wishes to live "far from the glare and misfortune that has often fallen upon other lottery winners."

The law doesn’t appear to be on her side. New Hampshire lottery rules require the winner’s name, town and amount won be available for public information, in accordance with open-records laws.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Washington Post

Scientists have found that animals across the evolutionary spectrum have a keen sense of quantity, able to distinguish not just bigger from smaller or more from less, but two from four, four from 10, 40 from 60. Orb-weaving spiders, for example, keep a tally of how many silk-wrapped prey items are stashed in the "larder" segment of their web. Small fish benefit from living in schools, and the more numerous the group, the statistically better a fish’s odds of escaping predation. Guppies evolved to distinguish at a glance between four guppies and five, or eight guppies and 10, and if given the chance will swim toward the slightly fishier crowd.

People too are born with a strong innate number sense. Researchers have determined that number words for small quantities — less than five — are strikingly similar across virtually every language group studied, and the words are among the most stable, unchanging utterances in any lexicon.

"The sounds that you and I use to say ‘two’ or ‘three’ are the sounds that have been used for tens of thousands of years," said Mark Pagel, a biologist who studies the evolution of language at the University of Reading.

"It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood." That continuity, Pagel added, "should astonish us."

Natalie Angier, New York Times

Have you ever wanted to talk to a killer whale? First, you should introduce yourself by saying "hello." In a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists report that a 16-year-old orca named Wikie was able to copy a variety of new sounds on command. The study joins a growing body of research illustrating the deep importance of social learning for killer whales.

"We wanted to study vocal imitation because it’s a hallmark of human spoken language, which is in turn important for human cultural evolution," said José Zamorano-Abramson, who led the study at the Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. "We are interested in the possibility that other species also have cultural processes."

In the wild, killer whales live in tight-knit, matriarchal pods with unique vocal traditions. For decades, scientists have suspected that orcas acquire these dialects through social learning rather than genetic inheritance. For their study, Abramson and colleagues trained Wikie’s calf, Moana, to make five sounds outside of Wikie’s natural repertoire, including that of a creaking door, an elephant and a raspberry. Then they instructed Wikie to copy each vocalization, either by listening to Moana directly or through speakers. They also tested whether Wikie could emulate some human words or phrases, including "ah ah" and "Amy." She could.

Steph Yin, New York Times

In a sense, an octopus has several brains, collections of neurons that control each arm. A famous 2001 study in the journal Science described how the commands that control one arm’s movement continue even when connections to the walnut-size central processing system in the head are severed.

Since then, more has been found about why the octopus is so much smarter than the average seafood. Even the relatively small central brain of an octopus is the largest among all invertebrates — proportionally, that is. A review article in 2015 in the journal Current Opinion in Neurobiology summarized the complexity of learning processes in the octopus and its remarkable adaptability.

Some studies have examined the cephalopod’s ability to discern objects of different sizes, shapes, colors, brightnesses and textures, and its problem-solving, including the ability to navigate mazes and open jars. The creature also displays both short-term and long-term memory and recall over periods of weeks and even months.

A possible explanation of the advanced abilities of the octopus lies in its very large genome, decoded in 2015 in a study in the journal Nature. The researchers surmised that the vast expansion of certain gene families in the octopus, and the network of linkages among the genes, could account for the development of its neurological complexity.

C. Claiborne Ray, New York Times

Imagine you’re in a high-speed car chase. You’re fast — but the 12-cylinder Lamborghini behind you is faster. Flooring the accelerator and going in a straight line only spells certain defeat. So what’s your best bet for escape? Drive along, not too quickly, and just as the other car is about to close in, make a sharp turn. That’s the suggestion of a study published in Nature, although instead of cars it looked at high-speed pursuits between two pairs of predator and prey: cheetahs and impalas, and lions and zebras.

The study, done over many years in Botswana, is the first to gather stride-by-stride data on how these animals hunt and flee for survival in the wild, said Thomas Roberts, a professor of biology at Brown University who was not involved in the study. The data showed that impalas and zebras were typically moving at only half their maximum speed when running from their pursuers. To confirm why, the scientists created a computer model that simulated the last moments of a hunt, after a predator has closed in enough to capture its prey within two strides. The model showed that impalas and zebras have the best chance of making a getaway if they run at moderate speeds, because that leaves more options for maneuvering away at the last second.

Steph Yin, New York Times

DARWIN, Australia — When the dry season spreads over the tropical savannas of Australia’s Northern Territories, rangers start watching for the so-called firehawks: flocks of black kites, whistling kites and brown falcons that hunt near bush fires, snapping up small animals flushed out by the smoke and sparks. If a fire begins to flicker out, locals claim, some of the birds will keep it going by carrying burning sticks to new locations.

"We get a lot of humbug" from the birds, said Robert Redford, a ranger who is an Aboriginal Australian. "We make firebreaks, and sometimes that bird makes another fire and he makes a lot of trouble."

The idea that birds intentionally manipulate fire has long been greeted with skepticism in scientific circles. But a recent paper published in Journal of Ethnobiology reports that all three species do appear to spread wildfires for hunting purposes. Over the course of two years, Bob Gosford, an ornithologist, and Mark Bonta, an assistant professor of earth sciences at Penn State Altoona, and their colleagues collected older ethnographic reports and conducted detailed interviews with six eyewitnesses, including numerous Aboriginal firefighters and academics.

They told stories of raptors stealing twigs from cook fires and transporting the branches up to six-tenths of a mile away. One firefighter reported seeing a flock spread a wildfire all the way up a small valley. The accounts suggested that the birds act primarily when wildfires are going out because they have reached a natural barrier or through human intervention.

Black kites, one of the species implicated in fire-spreading, have a reputation for being clever. Bonta believes that fire-spreading is not observed more often because only a few birds in any flock understand how to do it.

Bonta and Gosford hope to launch a three-week research expedition in May, where they’ll work with fire rangers in hopes of documenting the behavior firsthand.

They’ll be accompanied by volunteer birders with cameras and with drones. The team also plans on collaborating with Aboriginal authors on future publications, part of an effort to incorporate indigenous ecological knowledge into ornithology.

Asher Elbein, New York Times

Will a diamond look the same in a billion years? It depends on where the diamond spends those years, said George E. Harlow, a gem curator at the American Museum of Natural History, who is also an adjunct senior research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

Diamonds, which form eight-sided crystals called octahedrons, can be billions of years old. They are datable by minute inclusions of other minerals retained inside them since they were formed deep in the Earth.

"Lots of ancient diamonds that have been down there for close to 2 billion years will still look like octahedrons," Harlow said.

"But the Earth is dynamic, moving all the time, and most diamonds show the effects of being squooshed to some extent," he said. "They are not inert, but may deform and crystallize again."

As the crystals are squeezed and heated, the molecular bonds are weakened, with the edges and flat surfaces of the crystals being particularly vulnerable, Harlow explained. Many diamonds end up with rounded shapes rather than being sharply defined.

As the internal planes of the crystal slide past one another, tiny cavities may be created because atoms are missing from the crystal structure. It is these cavities that are believed to create a brown or pink color, Harlow said. As for very rare red diamonds, the theory is that they are the result of cavities of a very uniform size.

Diamonds that reach the surface are often blasted there very quickly, at speeds of 30 to 50 mph by volcanic elevators called kimberlites, Harlow said. If these elevators are too slow, however, that leaves diamonds vulnerable to being dissolved in the fluid they are brought up in. The sharp edges go first.

"Once they are near Earth’s surface, it is very difficult to get rid of diamonds," Harlow said. The amount of energy required to break their bonds and change them is not available, so they would essentially stick around in the same form forever.

New York Times

If you keep swatting at a mosquito, will it leave you alone? Some blood meals are worth a mosquito risking its life. But if there’s a more attractive or accepting alternative to feed from, a mosquito may move on to that someone or something instead. That’s because if you keep trying and missing, the mosquito may learn to associate your swatting vibrations with your scent, a study published in Current Biology suggests. And it just may remember: This is not a person who will tolerate me.

Mosquitoes, which transmit diseases like Zika and malaria, do not just bite anything, said Jeffrey Riffell, a neuroecologist at the University of Washington who led the study. They prefer people over other animals, and some people over others. Attraction depends on how a person looks, smells or acts. But when a feeding situation isn’t favorable, a mosquito can switch preferences.

Joanna Klein, New York Times

The winning numbers triple-checked and the lottery ticket signed, the New Hampshire woman knew her life was about to change in a very positive way — except for one petrifying thing. As the winner of last month’s $560 million Powerball, she would soon be the world’s newest owner of a nine-digit bank account.

But because of lottery rules, everyone in the world would know about it — neighbors, old high school friends, con artists, criminals. Now the woman is asking a judge to let her keep the cash — and remain anonymous. In court documents se is identified only as Jane Doe.

"She is a longtime resident of New Hampshire and is an engaged community member," the woman’s attorney, Steven Gordon, wrote in the court documents. "She wishes to continue this work and the freedom to walk into a grocery store or attend public events without being known or targeted as the winner of a half-billion dollars."

On one side of the case are lottery officials who say the integrity of the games depends on the public identification of its winners as a protection against fraud and malfeasance. A local woman holding up a giant check while cameras flash and reporters scrawl also happens to be a powerful marketing tool.

On the other side is a woman suddenly faced with a life-changing stroke of luck who, court documents say, wishes to live "far from the glare and misfortune that has often fallen upon other lottery winners."

The law doesn’t appear to be on her side. New Hampshire lottery rules require the winner’s name, town and amount won be available for public information, in accordance with open-records laws.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Washington Post

Scientists have found that animals across the evolutionary spectrum have a keen sense of quantity, able to distinguish not just bigger from smaller or more from less, but two from four, four from 10, 40 from 60. Orb-weaving spiders, for example, keep a tally of how many silk-wrapped prey items are stashed in the "larder" segment of their web. Small fish benefit from living in schools, and the more numerous the group, the statistically better a fish’s odds of escaping predation. Guppies evolved to distinguish at a glance between four guppies and five, or eight guppies and 10, and if given the chance will swim toward the slightly fishier crowd.

People too are born with a strong innate number sense. Researchers have determined that number words for small quantities — less than five — are strikingly similar across virtually every language group studied, and the words are among the most stable, unchanging utterances in any lexicon.

"The sounds that you and I use to say ‘two’ or ‘three’ are the sounds that have been used for tens of thousands of years," said Mark Pagel, a biologist who studies the evolution of language at the University of Reading.

"It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood." That continuity, Pagel added, "should astonish us."

Natalie Angier, New York Times

Have you ever wanted to talk to a killer whale? First, you should introduce yourself by saying "hello." In a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists report that a 16-year-old orca named Wikie was able to copy a variety of new sounds on command. The study joins a growing body of research illustrating the deep importance of social learning for killer whales.

"We wanted to study vocal imitation because it’s a hallmark of human spoken language, which is in turn important for human cultural evolution," said José Zamorano-Abramson, who led the study at the Marineland Aquarium in Antibes, France. "We are interested in the possibility that other species also have cultural processes."

In the wild, killer whales live in tight-knit, matriarchal pods with unique vocal traditions. For decades, scientists have suspected that orcas acquire these dialects through social learning rather than genetic inheritance. For their study, Abramson and colleagues trained Wikie’s calf, Moana, to make five sounds outside of Wikie’s natural repertoire, including that of a creaking door, an elephant and a raspberry. Then they instructed Wikie to copy each vocalization, either by listening to Moana directly or through speakers. They also tested whether Wikie could emulate some human words or phrases, including "ah ah" and "Amy." She could.

Steph Yin, New York Times

In a sense, an octopus has several brains, collections of neurons that control each arm. A famous 2001 study in the journal Science described how the commands that control one arm’s movement continue even when connections to the walnut-size central processing system in the head are severed.

Since then, more has been found about why the octopus is so much smarter than the average seafood. Even the relatively small central brain of an octopus is the largest among all invertebrates — proportionally, that is. A review article in 2015 in the journal Current Opinion in Neurobiology summarized the complexity of learning processes in the octopus and its remarkable adaptability.

Some studies have examined the cephalopod’s ability to discern objects of different sizes, shapes, colors, brightnesses and textures, and its problem-solving, including the ability to navigate mazes and open jars. The creature also displays both short-term and long-term memory and recall over periods of weeks and even months.

A possible explanation of the advanced abilities of the octopus lies in its very large genome, decoded in 2015 in a study in the journal Nature. The researchers surmised that the vast expansion of certain gene families in the octopus, and the network of linkages among the genes, could account for the development of its neurological complexity.

C. Claiborne Ray, New York Times

Imagine you’re in a high-speed car chase. You’re fast — but the 12-cylinder Lamborghini behind you is faster. Flooring the accelerator and going in a straight line only spells certain defeat. So what’s your best bet for escape? Drive along, not too quickly, and just as the other car is about to close in, make a sharp turn. That’s the suggestion of a study published in Nature, although instead of cars it looked at high-speed pursuits between two pairs of predator and prey: cheetahs and impalas, and lions and zebras.

The study, done over many years in Botswana, is the first to gather stride-by-stride data on how these animals hunt and flee for survival in the wild, said Thomas Roberts, a professor of biology at Brown University who was not involved in the study. The data showed that impalas and zebras were typically moving at only half their maximum speed when running from their pursuers. To confirm why, the scientists created a computer model that simulated the last moments of a hunt, after a predator has closed in enough to capture its prey within two strides. The model showed that impalas and zebras have the best chance of making a getaway if they run at moderate speeds, because that leaves more options for maneuvering away at the last second.

Steph Yin, New York Times

DARWIN, Australia — When the dry season spreads over the tropical savannas of Australia’s Northern Territories, rangers start watching for the so-called firehawks: flocks of black kites, whistling kites and brown falcons that hunt near bush fires, snapping up small animals flushed out by the smoke and sparks. If a fire begins to flicker out, locals claim, some of the birds will keep it going by carrying burning sticks to new locations.

"We get a lot of humbug" from the birds, said Robert Redford, a ranger who is an Aboriginal Australian. "We make firebreaks, and sometimes that bird makes another fire and he makes a lot of trouble."

The idea that birds intentionally manipulate fire has long been greeted with skepticism in scientific circles. But a recent paper published in Journal of Ethnobiology reports that all three species do appear to spread wildfires for hunting purposes. Over the course of two years, Bob Gosford, an ornithologist, and Mark Bonta, an assistant professor of earth sciences at Penn State Altoona, and their colleagues team collected older ethnographic reports and conducted detailed interviews with six eyewitnesses, including Aboriginal firefighters and academics.

They told stories of raptors stealing twigs from cook fires and transporting the brands up to six-tenths of a mile away. One firefighter reported seeing a flock spread a wildfire all the way up a small valley. The accounts suggested that the birds act primarily when wildfires are going out because they have reached a natural barrier or through human intervention.

Black kites, one of the species implicated in fire-spreading, have a reputation for being clever. Bonta believes that fire-spreading is not observed more often because only a few birds in any flock understand how to do it.

Bonta and Gosford hope to launch a three-week research expedition

in May, where they’ll work with fire rangers in hopes of documenting the behavior firsthand. They’ll be accompanied by volunteer birders with cameras and with drones. The team also plans on collaborating with Aboriginal authors on future publications, part of an effort to incorporate indigenous ecological knowledge into ornithology.

Asher Elbein, New York Times

Diamonds are sort of forever

Will a diamond look the same in a billion years? It depends on where the diamond spends those years, said George E. Harlow, a gem curator at the American Museum of Natural History, who is also an adjunct senior research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

Diamonds, which form eight-sided crystals called octahedrons, can be billions of years old. They are datable by minute inclusions of other minerals, retained inside them since they were formed deep in the Earth.

"Lots of ancient diamonds that have been down there for close to 2 billion years will still look like octahedrons," Harlow said.

"But the Earth is dynamic, moving all the time, and most diamonds show the effects of being squooshed to some extent," he said. "They are not inert, but may deform and crystallize again."

As the crystals are squeezed and heated, the molecular bonds are weakened, with the edges and flat surfaces of the crystals being particularly vulnerable, Harlow explained. Many diamonds end up with rounded shapes rather than being sharply defined.

As the internal planes of the crystal slide past one another, tiny cavities may be created because atoms are missing from the crystal structure. It is these cavities that are believed to create a brown or pink color, Harlow said. As for very rare red diamonds, the theory is that they are the result of cavities of a very uniform size.

Diamonds that reach the surface are often blasted there very quickly, at speeds of 30 to 50 mph by volcanic elevators called kimberlites, Harlow said. If these elevators are too slow, however, that leaves diamonds vulnerable to being dissolved in the fluid they are brought up in. The sharp edges go first.

"Once they are near Earth’s surface, it is very difficult to get rid of diamonds," Harlow said. The amount of energy required to break their bonds and change them is not available, so they would essentially stick around in the same form forever.

New York Times

Swatting at mosquitoes may help you avoid bites, even if you miss

If you keep swatting at a mosquito, will it leave you alone? Some blood meals are worth a mosquito risking its life. But if there’s a more attractive or accepting alternative to feed from, a mosquito may move on to that someone or something instead. That’s because if you keep trying and missing, the mosquito may learn to associate your swatting vibrations with your scent, a study published in Current Biology suggests. And it just may remember: This is not a person who will tolerate me.

Mosquitoes, which transmit diseases like Zika and malaria, do not just bite anything, said Jeffrey Riffell, a neuroecologist at The University of Washington who led the study. They prefer people over other animals, and some people over others. Attraction depends on how a person looks, smells or acts. But when a feeding situation isn’t favorable, a mosquito can switch preferences.

Joanna Klein, New York Times

   
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