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Jan 29, 2020 11:22PM ● By Julie Ross

Julie Ross

Science News Wrap-up: Black Holes to Cuttlefish

By Julie Ross


In 2019, news from the world of science was truly monumental. Reports on devasting threats to biodiversity launched record-breaking waves of climate activism. The Event Horizon Telescope captured the first image of a black hole, confirming a fundamental theory of how our universe works. Google announced it had created a qubit-based computer that could rapidly solve a problem it would take a typical supercomputer thousands of years to complete. Amazing.


Meanwhile, also made throughout the course of recent years were countless discoveries that are certainly smaller in scale but nonetheless inspiring (and delightfully entertaining) in their own way. 


Take, for example, the scientists at the University of Richmond in Virginia who have trained rats to drive tiny cars. They constructed the cars by taking small plastic containers and adding an aluminum floor and a steering mechanism made of three copper bars. When a rat stands on the floor and grabs the copper bars with its paws, a circuit is completed and the car moves. Touching the left, right, or center bar steers the car in different directions. The rats soon learned to drive their cars all over the testing arena to find treats. But why teach rats to drive, you ask? Learning difficult new skills has been shown to reduce the level of stress hormones in rats, which has human applications in studying how neurological and psychological conditions affect mental capability. At least that’s their story -- I imagine the scientists also just liked watching rats drive around collecting Fruit Loops.


Then there are soccer-playing bees, courtesy of scientists at Queen Mary University, in London. In this study, the scientists taught a group of buff-tailed bumblebees to move a small wooden ball to the center of a platform to earn a drop of sugar water. Once this insect version of scoring a goal was mastered, test bees were placed to observe the action. After watching goals being scored by the trained bees three times, the test bees were given their chance at ball-handling. They scored a goal almost every time, even when the task was made more difficult by the scientists. That these bees learned to complete advanced cognitive tasks after observing their peers is truly remarkable. (And, you have to give scientists credit for coming up with this stuff.)


The final scientific discovery I’ll mention here had this headline in the paper: “Cuttlefish with 3D Glasses Have Researchers Jumping Up and Down.” Who could resist reading a story with that title? This study had scientists at the University of Minnesota fitting cuttlefish in their lab with little 3D glasses by applying a dab of glue and some Velcro, which evidently can be tricky. As one of the scientists remarked, “Some individuals will not wear them no matter how hard I try.” Really? Just imagine that image. To summarize, the study was an attempt to add to the knowledge base surrounding 3D vision in various species. The experiment determined that cuttlefish do indeed see in 3D, while their cousins the octopus and squid apparently do not. That finding is what had the scientists jumping up and down in excitement. To each their own, I suppose.


Science. There is no end to the wonders yet to be discovered. I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions, but I do have a goal for 2020, and that is to be amazed by something in nature every day. I think it’s going to be an easy goal to achieve.


Today’s discovery: tardigrades. Look ‘em up. You can reach Julie at [email protected]