By 1 June 2011 | Categories: news


Good vibrations
Seals get all touchy when it comes to fish – and it’s all thanks to their vibration-sensitive whiskers. Scientists write in the Journal of Experimental Biology, that they trained a seal at a marine science centre to press one target when it recognised the wake of a standard-sized paddle and another target for that of a smaller paddle. Even when blindfolded and with its ears covered, the seal could accurately distinguish between the wakes of paddles that differed by less than 3 cm using only the pattern of the water disturbance.
Different paddle shapes didn’t cause problems either. The researchers suggest that whiskers which can pick up the size and shape of the wake of a passing fish, allow seals to go after the big fish, rather than waste hunting energy on the small fry.
Charged up
About 60 years ago transistors were big news. And according to a recent article in Science, electronics may be in for another shake-up. Transistors, which are current switches, are the power behind the operations of a computer chip. The more operations that can be performed per second, the more powerful the processor. But fast chips run hot, which means a chip can handle only a limited number of operations before things go up in smoke.
Now scientists have found that using insulating materials – lanthanum oxide, aluminium oxide and strontium titanate – rather than silicon to make transistors, greatly increases the capacitance of the transistor, yet without a significant increase in heat. The physics is not all clear yet, but if the mechanism can be worked out, computing power may soon take a giant leap forward.
Stay sharp
Think childhood music lessons were a drag? You may just change your tune in years to come. In a recent issue of the journal Neuropsychology, scientists write that learning to play an instrument or read music as a child may keep the brain fit in old age. A group of 70 senior adults were divided into three groups based on their level of music experience.
Participants who took music lessons for more than 10 years performed markedly better on difficult mental tasks than people with less music training. Yet those with some music training again performed much better than participants without any music training. The researchers think that the demanding mental activity involved in learning to play an instrument creates additional neural connections in the brain, which may ward off cognitive decline as we age. 
More hot science news:

When will we grow meat in a petri dish
Sending a boat to Saturn’s Titan moon’s methane sea. 
HP’s Memristors 10x faster than flash, needs 1/10th power.


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