Tag Archives: science

1.21 Gigawatts: Your Face, Close Up – Meet The Tiny and Mite-y

-Sarah Keartes

They nuzzle your nose. They cuddle cadavers. They suck down Sebum. The few, the proud, the face mites.

Yes, hiding in the hair follicles around your nose and forehead live microscopic mites—Demodex mites to be exact—and as it turns out, mine are quite shy.

Last February, I jumped at the opportunity to “meet” my mites by participating in a study conducted by Your Wild Life, an organization dedicated to exploring the biodiversity that lives “on us, in us, and around us.”

I signed the waiver excitedly, eager to donate some of my precious facial cargo to science. The lab tech sat me in her chair, lifted a metal scraper to my nose, and began the search. While my mites were nowhere to be found, Your Wild Life has  successfully scraped mites from many of more than 200 participants.

Over 48 thousand species of mites have been described—two of which, D.folliculorum and D. brevis, are found only on humans.

“Both species are sausage-shaped, with eight stubby legs clustered in their front third. At a third of a millimeter long, D.folliculorum is the bigger of the two,” science-writer Ed Yong said in a 2012 article for Discover. “Richard Owen gave the mite its name, from the Greek words ‘demos,’ meaning lard, and ‘dex,’ meaning boring worm.”

Before the image of “lard worms” hiding in your pores sends you into a Jabba the Hutt-fearing frenzy or running for a loofa, keep in mind that nearly every adult hosts these squidgy little squatters, and they most likely do you no harm.

“For the most part, it seems that they eat, crawl and mate on your face without harmful effects. They could help us by eating bacteria or other microbes in the follicles….Their eggs, clawed legs, spiny mouth-parts, and salivary enzymes could all provoke an immune response, but this generally doesn’t seem to happen,” Yong said.

Demodex mites are ectoparistites, meaning they do not burrow under the skin. They are not exclusive to the face, but because they feed on Sebum (the oily secretion of the sebaceous glands that keeps your skin moist) and the cells inside of hair follicles, each face is a piece of prime real estate.

Every generation picks up mites throughout their lifetime, and they have been found in nearly all races, something that intrigues the team at Your Wild Life.

“We aim to study the evolution and diversification of human-associated Demodex mites over time and space. Specifically, we want to map the mites’  “family tree” and see how closely that tracks our own human family tree,” the team said.

There is certainly much to be learned about these microscopic mooches, and their relationship to us. I find it all rather fascinating but taking a close look at what is crawling on our skin is not for everyone.

If this post has you nearing the edge of an emotional breakdown, chances are you have Acarophobia, the fear of Mites and small insects. Phobia here, phobia there, phobias, phobias everywhere!

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Image from Your Wild Life.

Grinding the Gears: Inside and Outside of Robotics

Students line up around the stacks of wood. “Let’s get going guys,” the team co-captain says.

Each person picks up a different tool and begins assembling an exact replication of the blueprints the students created before the six-week building period. Quickly, the robotics arm is nestled into position.

SERT is the robotics team at South Eugene High School and is compromised of approximately 20 students with just as many different personalities. Each student contributes skills in distinct backgrounds to attribute to the success of the program.

“Outside of robotics, I enjoy reading, writing poetry, and riding horses,” says Perrin Dunn, 16. “It’s a really good experience because I’ve never been in any clubs before.”

"Having students interested in different things works out well for us," Kelly says. Each student brings a different background and contributes a diverse skill set to the team. (Photo by Alan Sylvestre)

“Having students interested in different things works out well for us,” Kelly says. Each student brings a different background and contributes a diverse skill set to the team. (Photo by Alan Sylvestre)

By delving into the meticulous realm of circuitry, SERT provides its students a way to get hands-on experience with teamwork, mathematics, and engineering in an academic setting before entering the real world.

Marcus Hall, the Head Programmer for SERT, uses the education he received through SERT to venture outside the realm of academia and share his passion for science and electrical work to elementary students at the Science Factory, a local children’s museum and planetarium in Eugene, Oregon.

Marcus Hall, SERT captain and head programmer, measures a piece of wood that that will eventually become a target for their demonstrations. Outside of SERT, Hall teaches robotics to elementary and middle school students in the Eugene area. (Photo by Alan Sylvestre)

Marcus Hall, SERT captain and head programmer, measures a piece of wood that that will eventually become a target for their demonstrations. Outside of SERT, Hall teaches robotics to elementary and middle school students in the Eugene area. (Photo by Alan Sylvestre)

In addition to teaching at the Science Factory, Hall teaches robotics to elementary school students at the Science Factory as well as with the Talented and Gifted program at the University of Oregon, a community outreach program dedicated to advanced education among K-12 students through U of O’s College of Education.

Through his work at the Science Factory, Hall is gaining invaluable leadership and teaching experience that he can incorporate into his team captain position with the SERT team.

Head coach and mentor Brian Kelly believes that having a strong and organized leader is quintessential to the six-week building season. It helps strengthen the team both from leadership and teaching standpoints.

During the non-building season, students take their skills to other areas of the school and invest them into classes and programs such as the Stagecraft class in which they construct the stages and sets for each play. This helps maintain their building dexterity during the off-season, as well as keeps the students in a team setting.

Sandra Lui uses a different take to practice her skills by leading the SERT public relations team. Outside of the building season, Lui travels with Hall to lobby the state legislature for more funding for FIRST Robotics. She feels that having a team dedicated to seeking funding for the program is an essential part of a successful robotics program now and in the future.

Even though the students excel far beyond the minimum requirements to preserve their team, for the future of SERT to travel down the path of least resistance, the team must over come a large hurdle recently set forth by the City of Eugene.

For the 2013-2014 school year, the City of Eugene has proposed a bond measure that could potentially harm the SERT program. Measure 20-201, a $170 million bond measure that would replace four aging school buildings, would eliminate Roosevelt Middle School, the current workspace for SERT.

“I don’t know what will happen,” Kelly says about the future of the program. Roosevelt Middle School is the only school is the area with enough space, storage and equipment for the SERT team to successfully construct a robot.

“There are no other workspaces around that we could use,” says Kelly.

In a time of economic instability, job security has never been at a more pivotal point, and any experience that students can obtain during high school will benefit their chances of pursuing a professional career in a technical field.

Having fundamental, hands-on skills is crucial to obtaining a job in the technical field. If the SERT program is lost, students will have to look for alternative methods to enhance their skills. (Photo by Alan Sylvestre)

Having fundamental, hands-on skills is crucial to obtaining a job in the technical field. If the SERT program is lost, students will have to look for alternative methods to enhance their skills. (Photo by Alan Sylvestre)

“It’s [robotics is] going to be helpful someday,” Lui says. “I’ve always wanted to help people.” The students feel that robotics has strengthened their ability to assist others and recognize the advantages team collaboration will have on their future endeavors.

If lost, SERT members will have no other outlets within this discipline because FIRST Robotics is the only hands-on program left at South Eugene High School. Churchill High School is the only Eugene school outside South that has an active robotics team.

“This is their one big outlet and I think that’s actually a failing of the schools today, that kids don’t get any practical experience,” Kelly says.

As it stands, SERT relies heavily on funding from outside donors, and this can prove to be a challenge in a city where the largest businesses are also non-profit organizations. To raise more funds, the team participates in outside fundraising events each year to pay for the $5,000 entrance fee required before the competitive season starts.

SERT team members gather around the main controller as they prepare to give a demonstration in an effort to attract more students to their program. Recruitment is essential to the success of their program. (Photo by Alan Sylvestre)

SERT team members gather around the main controller as they prepare to give a demonstration in an effort to attract more students to their program. Recruitment is essential to the success of their program. (Photo by Alan Sylvestre)

The students also show off their hard work in “performances” at both Roosevelt and Spencer Butte Middle Schools to recruit eight graders into their program for the following year. Demonstrating what they’ve been intensively working on for the last six weeks helps attract a wide range of candidates as additions to the SERT team.

“I like robotics because it’s a bunch of helping, and electronics, and it’s a team,” Yakov Berenshtein says.

1.21 Gigawatts: Do U(O) Know? WTF Evolution!

madscientist

-Sarah Keartes

Is it possible for a cute, cuddly, normal land mammal to smell underwater? Forty students were polled, thirty-nine answered no.

“Sure it is, right before it drowns,” one student told Flux.

Ninety-eight percent: that is a pretty cohesive answer, but once again University of Oregon Students, you are incorrect. To the one student who answered yes, I commend you.

Enter the first star in a lineup of five creatures that have evolved unbelievable abilities, the Star Nosed Mole.

#1 Underwater Smelling: Star Nosed Mole (Condylura cristata)

 

It’s certainly not the most beautiful rodent, but when it comes to strange abilities, the Star Nosed Mole has one for the charts: underwater smelling.

The tiny mole uses it’s strange twenty-two-tenticled sniffer to blow and re-inhale air bubbles underwater. Five to ten bubbles per second (about the same speed a rat sniffs a suspicious odor) are aimed at potential prey items when the mole is submerged.

Each fleshy tentacle of the nose is covered in 25,000 sensory receptors called Eimer’s organs that the mole uses to find food in its marshy habitat.

“When these bubbles come into contact with an object, it is almost inevitable that odorant molecules will mix with the air and be drawn into the nose when the bubble is inhaled,” Kenneth Catania, assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, said.

#2 Mountain Dive: Venezuelan Pebble Toad (Oreophrynella nigra)

 

Measuring only a few centimeters long, this teeny toad has picked quite a dangerous place to call home—the flat, table-like Tepui Mountains, which rise thousands of feet above the Northern edge of the Amazon rainforest.

Luckily the Pebble Toad has no problem with falling—in fact, it relies on it. Only able to hop a maximum distance of one inch, the toad has developed an alternate mode of escape.

When threatened, it curls in its limbs, tenses its muscles, and hurdles itself down the nearest cliff face, bouncing down the rocks like a rubber ball.

Because it is so small, and weighs so little, the forces of impact are too light to cause it any harm. Watch high-speed video of this amazing escape artist here!

#3 Bloody Eyed Bandit: Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum)

 

The Texas Horned Lizard, introduced to the western United States through the pet trade, is native to the southeastern coastal plains, a desert environment made mostly of sand dunes.

Like most dune-goers, ants and small insects make up the majority of the reptile’s diet. Foraging for ants (about 200 per day) means spending long periods of time in the open. In order to protect itself, the lizard has developed quite a few defense mechanisms, but one is far stranger than the rest.

Should a predator not be deterred by its camouflaged coloring, playing dead, or spiked back (which can be used to pierce the throats of birds and small predators), the Horned Lizard will squirt an unexpected foul tasting blood excretion from the sinuses behind its eyes.

Taking this extreme action doesn’t hurt the lizard, but it consumes up to a quarter of the body’s blood so it is only deployed when absolutely necessary.

#4 Now You See Me, Now You Boom: Harlequin Mantis Shrimp (Odontodactylus scyllarus)

 

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Credit: Perry Aragon

The Harlequin (or Peacock) Mantis Shrimp is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully colored animals in the ocean, but don’t let that fool you. This crustacean packs a mean punch—the fastest in the world, in fact.

Reaching speeds over fifty mph and delivering approximately 160 pounds of instantaneous force with its spring loaded clubs, the mantis shrimp can easily crack the shells of clams and other mollusks—but has also been known to TKO aquarium glass without causing any damage to itself.

Studies show that the club structure is made up of three layers of differing hardness, stiffness, and orientation, which allow small cracks to form in the club but prevent them from growing or spreading. The outermost layer is made of highly crystallized form of the mineral hydroxyapatite, a key component of human bone and teeth.

Not only does the Mantis Shrimp boast some of the most effective arsenal in the world, but it also has the most complex vision system currently known to science, able to detect circular polarized light, something no other creature can do.

#5 Take a Deep Breath: Spanish Ribbed Newt (Pleurodeles waltl)

 

What do Xmen’s “Wolverine” and this small nondescript newt have in common? Skin piercing spikes, of course—but for the Spanish Ribbed Newt, using them is a last resort.

Newts’ skin is moist and quite slippery, so squirming away to escape predation is quite effective. But should the Spanish Ribbed Newt find itself cornered, it moves on to phase two.

When attacked or threatened the Newt will rotate its ribs forward, increasing their angle to the spine while holding the rest of its body still. When the force becomes too great, the sharp spear-like ribs actually pierce through the newt’s skin. As the ribs come through, a toxin, which is bothersome to humans but potent enough to kill small rodents, is excreted through pores in the skin.

The newt not only appears to be immune to its own poison, which seeps into the body tissue when the ribs are exposed, but also displays extraordinary skin regeneration.

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1.21 Gigawatts: Seahorse Armor Inspires Robotic Engineering

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-Sarah Keartes

Seahorses don’t exactly radiate toughness, but recent studies show that the bone structure of these delicate fish might be the key to unlocking a breakthrough in robotic armor. Iron Man á la seahorse?

First of all, yes, seahorses are in fact fish. Their genus name, “Hippocampus,” stems from the ancient Greek hippos meaning “horse,” and kampo meaning “sea monster.”

These tiny “sea monsters” (the largest reaching eight inches in length) face a multitude of challenges in open water, the most problematic being that they are poor swimmers. The fifty-four known species of seahorses must spend their days clinging to kelp, sea-grass, and coral so as not to be carried away by strong currents while feeding on crustaceans—something they must do constantly as their digestive tracts are extremely short.

What do the engineers at University of California San Diego (UCSD) Jacobs School of Engineering want with a teensy-tiny poor-swimming eating machine? The treasure is in the tail.

Seahorses use their prehensile (grasping) tails as anchors, holding them in place while they feed. The tails have to be strong enough to protect them, but flexible enough to wrap around rocks and move with the tide.

“The tail is the seahorse’s lifeline,” Michael Porter, a Ph.D. student in materials science said in an interview.

The typical tail is made up of thirty-six bony segments. Because most of their predators (including crabs, rays, turtles, and seabirds) capture seahorses by crushing them, the Jacobs team wanted to see if the bone segments  act as protective armor.

In order to study the bones’ structure more clearly, the team used a chemical process to strip them of their minerals and proteins. Amazingly, seahorse tail-bones contain a lower-than-most percentage of hard minerals (15 percent lower than cow bone). When we think of shielding materials, we often assume the stronger the better. But just like foam or other porous materials, the tail bones actually absorb energy during impact.

“The connective tissue between the tail’s bony plates and the tail muscles bore most of the load from the displacement,” the team said.

Each segment of the tail is composed of four L-shaped corner plates which are connected by small joints that allow the bone plates to glide and pivot freely over one another without being damaged. The structure is reminiscent of the Hoberman Sphere toys we all know and love.

 

“[In our tests] the tail could be compressed by nearly 50 percent of its original width before permanent damage occurred…even when the tail was compressed by as much as 60 percent the seahorse’s spinal column was protected from permanent damage,” the team found.

If the team is successful in recreating this structure, imagine the applications of armored plating that could withstand that kind of pressure.

The Jacobs team plans to use 3D printers to create artificial bony plates lined with polymer muscles, which will help them to better understand how to apply these structures to their robotics.

“The final goal is to build a robotic arm that would be a unique hybrid between hard and soft robotic devices. A flexible, yet robust robotic gripper could be used for medical devices, underwater exploration and unmanned bomb detection and detonation,” they said.

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Image by Jacobs School of Engineering.

1.21 Gigawatts: Sci-Tube – Five Videos That Will Blow Your Mind

-Sarah Keartes

#1 Crying in Orbit?

 

In his recent mid-orbit vlog entry, Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Chris Hadfield demonstrates the physics of crying in space.

“Your eyes will definitely cry . . . but the big difference is, tears don’t fall, so grab a hanky,” Hadfield said. It is earth’s gravitational force that causes our tears to fall. In a micro-gravitational environment, tears collected in the eye are unable to flow downward. Instead they pool together, forming a “ball” of water which will sit on the eye until it reaches a larch enough size and will break free and float around.

Even more interesting is that space tears can actually sting your eyes. The reason behind this is unknown, but NASA has long studied the effects of space travel on human vision, which include flattening of the back of the eyeball, changes in the retina and optic nerve, and problems with both near and distance vision.

#2 The Prince Rupert’s Drop: Unbreakable Exploding Glass

 

Do not be afraid of this video’s seven-minute playing time. Stop what you are doing and tune in to this incredible high-speed video. Correction: high-speed video of explosions. Correction: high-speed video of exploding glass—that you can’t break with a hammer. What?

Destin of “Smarter Every Day” (with a bit of help from Orbix Hot Glass in Fort Payne, Alabama) explores the physics behind the Prince Rupert’s Drop. The drop, also known as “Prince Rupert’s Balls” or “Dutch Tears,” is a tadpole-shaped glass object that is created when molten glass is dripped into water to cool.

The resulting structure possesses mind-boggling physical properties: the head of the drop can be bashed and beaten to the heart’s content without breaking, but even the slightest nick to the glass tail causes a large release of stored potential energy resulting in microscopic fractures from tail to head. In other words? Boom goes the dynamite.

#3 00-Robots? University of Pennsylvania Quatrotors Go “Bond”

 

The James Bond theme has been covered thousands of times on Youtube, but to my knowledge, it has only been covered once by a fleet of autonomous flying robots.

Birthed from U. Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences GRASP lab, the tiny robots, dubbed “Nano Quadrotors,” can be programed with a series of points that must be reached at a precise time. Amazingly, the direct path is chosen by the bots, which are able to pick up the locations of fleet members using infrared technology.

GRASPLAB members are working with scientists to improve their robots by mimicking the swarming behaviors of birds, fish and insects—the Quadrotors operate not as a swarm, but much like a flock.

#4 The World’s Cutest Frog

 

Forget cats. This tiny, slimy squeak-toy which looks more like a character from Pokémon than an earthly creature, is the Namaqua Rain Frog (Breviceps namaquensis), and it may be the cutest thing I have ever seen.

Unlike many of its amphibious relatives, the frog, filmed here by nature photographer Dean Boshoff, is a desert resident. Native to the Namaqualand coast of South Africa (and adjacent sandy inland areas), the Namaqua Rain Frog is a burrowing species which surfaces only when ample rainfall brings a plethora of insects to feed on.

Should that blood-curdling, utterly terrifying, well, “peep” not do the trick; the frog will inflate itself to its full girth when threatened.

#5 “4D” Printing: Transformers Anyone?

 

SJET, LLC is a research-based practice founded by architect, designer, and computer scientist Skylar Tibbits. Combining tools from architecture, design, fabrication, computer science, and robotics, SJET focuses on creating self-assembling structures using “4D”printing technology. In other words, they are working to build things that build themselves without external guidance.

“What we’re saying here is, you design something, you print it, it evolves…it’s like naturally embedding smartness into the materials,” Tibbits told Wired in an interview.

How does it work? Each piece of the structure is molecularly altered—embedded with patterns of elements that attract each other through negative and positive interactions when the correct amount of energy is added (here through shaking). Tibbits and SJET see the application of this technology in the creation of large scale smart structures in extreme environments such as space and the ocean.

“The self-assembled structures of the future won’t just be large; they will also be smart. Every brick, beam, and bolt may one day compute and store digital information about the building, environment, and construction to aid assembly,” Tibbits said.

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1.21 Gigawatts: Do U(O) Know? Shark Finning

“1.21 Gigawatts” is a weekly science column covering local and national science news, as well as wildlife and conservation. Sarah Keartes is an ocean-obsessed junior studying journalism and marine biology. For more science mind candy, follow this Attenborough wannabe on Twitter.

-Sarah Keartes

Throughout the first week of the term, the hustle and bustle surrounding the campus book store resembles that of a Savannah watering hole. Buzzing about the perimeter is a diverse blend of organisms: “Jazzed Jenny,” a hyperactive creature who has had her fill of early morning caffeine; “Barely-There Billy,” moseying his way to class against all primal instinct; and “Miserable Madison,” low on much-needed resources after purchasing this round of textbooks.

There I sat lurking—a self-proclaimed nature nerd armed with a whiteboard waiting to prey on the minds of spring students, posing the question “Do you know what shark finning is?”

Around forty students took the bait and ventured a guess. While many of them penned their responses with confidence and conviction, not a single one answered correctly.

“Shark finning is riding sharks like Manny the shark guy,” one student wrote.

The incorrect responses continued, with students most commonly defining shark finning as “shark fishing,” “cutting off a shark’s [dorsal] fin,” and “making shark into soup.” Close, but no cigar. Let’s start with the soup.

Shark fin or “chì” soup has long been served as a symbol of wealth and class in Chinese culture. The simple soup which is comprised of pricey meat from the shark’s fins, along with a few traditional ingredients, boasts price tags of more than $100 per bowl. While the majority of fin meat sold in world markets does supply demand for chì soup ingredients, not all fins for sale in markets are the result of “finning.”

Shark finning does not just mean removing shark fins, nor is it synonymous with shark fishing. The term actually refers to the practice of removing the fins from a shark while the animal is still alive and aboard the shipping vessel. Once removed, the shark is dumped overboard to bleed to death. Lovely.

Why dump the sharks? Shark fin meat is vastly more valuable than the meat from the animal’s body, so by dumping sharks overboard, fishermen are able to use smaller boats and retrieve more fins at less cost to the industry. This gruesome practice is wildly unsustainable as large populations can be overfished rapidly by small fishing operations.

Shark finning has become one of the hottest topics on the marine conservation scene, sparking heated debates and nabbing the attention of many activists and politicians. But like our sample of students, many conservationists, bloggers, and shark supporters misconstrue the term.

Who cares? Shark fishing is “bad.” If the issue is brought to the forefront, why does it matter?

In order to better understand this, let’s take a trip to yester-year. Since the dreaded “duh-nuh…duh-nuh” theme song first made its appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, sharks have stared in more than forty horror films. This rise to stardom helped secure our finned-foes as one of the media’s most menacing monsters.

As technology and continued research allow us to become more environmentally aware, we’ve jumped to the other side. We watch “Shark Week” by the millions, we eat up Planet Earth and soak up David Attenborough’s narration, we are going green, we post, we forward, we petition, we tweet—we are part of the solution, right?

This is where we run into problems. Just like shark-slasher films polarized the way we looked at sharks, the gruesome practice of finning featured in blog posts, tweets, articles, and online petitions with little explanation of alternative fishing methods agitates the battle between fishing communities and conservationists, devaluing the work of those searching for a more sustainable solution.

This has become a prominent issue for shark biologists like David Shiffman.

“Increasing the level of confusion and misconception that’s already out there only makes things worse for the oceans, and demonizing responsible fishing practices can undo decades of progress made by those who do understand the issues,” Shiffman said.

Think you now know which sharks have been “finned?” Take the Quiz!

Top image by Nicholas WangIllustration by Lily Nelson. 

The Unconscious Brain's Decision-Making Process

-Emily Fraysse

The science of the brain can be a rather daunting and intimidating area of study. When a person is in a difficult situation or faced with a major decision, and has the luxury of time, a common response is to “sleep on it.” This break from thinking about a problem can be a more rewarding decision than many have previously thought.

Extensive research from Carnegie Mellon University found that the brain regions that are responsible for making decisions are continuously active even when the conscious brain is distracted with a different task. CMU graduate James K. Bursley and Northeastern University’s Ajay B. Satpute took twenty-seven healthy adults and gave them information about cars and other items while undergoing neuroimaging. Before they were asked to make decisions about the items they had just seen, they were handed a different task like memorizing sequences of numbers. The participants would not think consciously about the decision information.

The results confirmed that a distraction, even one only two minutes long, produced higher quality decisions about the cars and other items. But a new question arose: does the distraction allow for the brain to take a break from the decision-making and then return to it after the distraction is finished? Or does the brain continue to unconsciously think about the decision regardless of distractions?

Thanks to neuroimaging, the brain showed that it was unconsciously focused on making the decision, as the visual and prefrontal cortices, which are responsible for decision-making, were active. Another study in 2012 at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences showed how, thanks to functional MRI scans, brain patterns showed a person’s decision seven seconds before they actually “decided.” John-Dylan Haynes, one of the Max Planck Institute neuroscientists, explained that, “Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.”

For more information, watch the Carnegie Mellon University students explaining their research and findings and a video describing the Max Planck Institute research.