Discovered: Cockatoos start using tools; party alignment is not encoded in our DNA; citizen scientists sift through cancer data; math class is tough—and sometimes painful.
Cockatoos can use tools now. Are you ready for the great cockatoo uprising? It's starting to look like they're scheming to come after humans, given their newfound ability to use tools. University of Vienna and University of Oxford researchers discovered the disturbing new development, observing a bird raised in captivity named Figaro spontaneously using splinters from wooden boards to grab things out of his normal reach. Goffin's cockatoos are not known to use tools in the wild. Says lead researcher Alice Auersperg, "During our daily observation protocols, Figaro was playing with a small stone. At some point he inserted the pebble through the cage mesh, and it fell just outside his reach. After some unsuccessful attempts to reach it with his claw, he fetched a small stick and started fishing for his toy." Oxford's Alex Kacelnik says that the researchers aren't yet sure how Figaro got to use these tools or what it means for bird evolution: "We confess to be still struggling to identify the cognitive operations that make these deeds possible. Figaro, and his predecessor Betty, may help us unlock many unknowns in the evolution of intelligence." We're going with cockatoo uprising. [University of Oxford]
Voting isn't genetically predetermined. The field of "genopolitics" grabs headlines (your ideology stems from your DNA!), but scientifically problematic. Writing in Scientific American, Evan Charney and William English argue that locating liberalism and conservatism in the complexity of the human genome—territory scientists are only beginning to fully understand—is reductive. "Most of the 20,000 to 25,000 human genes come in hundreds or thousands of common variations," they write. "For the most part, scientists do not know what effect, if any, these common variants, known as polymorphisms, have on the functioning of the proteins they encode. Genes predict certain well-defined physiological diseases—such as hereditary breast cancer and the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease—but when it comes to complex human behaviors such as voting, the link is tenuous at best." This assertion contradicts one famous study from 2008, in which James Fowler and Christopher Dawes concluded that certain variants of the MAOA gene made people more likely to vote. [Scientific American]
Science proves Teen Talk Barbie right. Math class really is tough, you guys. So tough that it can sometimes lead to actual physical pain. Psychologists Ian Lyon and Sian Beilock say that high levels of mathematics-anxiety (HMAs) is a real condition in which sufferers react to math homework in way that's experientially similar to being physically hurt. They studied 28 subjects, asking them to solve various word and number puzzles while in an MRI machine. For those averse to math, the dorso-posterior insula and mid-cingulate cortex regions of the brain lit up. These are crucial centers of neural activity in the experience of physical pain. The researchers write that HMAs could turn out to be, "an ideal test bed for expanding our understanding of how physically innocuous situations might elicit a neural response reflective of actual physical pain." [Wired]
Citizen science aids in cancer research. Gathering data is no longer a big problem for many of today's researchers. But combing through it to make sense of it all is. Big Data holds much potential for cancer researchers in particular, but research teams just don't have to time or manpower to analyze it all. Cancer Research UK, the second biggest funder in the field (second only to the U.S. government), is turning to citizen scientists for assistance with pouring over its information. They've launched a website called Click to Cure, where people can contribute to cancer research by looking at slides of cancerous cell images, logging which ones have certain colorations. This will help scientists filter out which slides to study for further insight into the role played by oestrogen receptor proteins. Cancer Research UK innovation director Tim Thorne says:
We’re looking for ways of speeding up the process. We might have teams of highly qualified pathologists who do research in their spare time. A lot of that will be churning through data from drug trials, or basic science, looking at lots and lots of sides. Their time is precious, and also highly expensive. If we can find ways to break down that process, make it engaging for the public, and produce a similar level of accuracy, it could be very useful.