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Uniquely human

At a U.S. brain-science symposium last week, Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist and primatologist at Stanford University, gave a keynote talk about human uniqueness, Livescience.com reports. He noted:

- "What makes humans special comes in no small part from the sheer quantity of available brain power - at least 300,000 brain cells for each neuron in a fruit-fly brain. … Basic biological units such as brain cells remain more or less the same across species. Yet humans have harnessed their higher neuron count and complex brain networks to achieve an unmatched level of cognitive sophistication."

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- "On a darker note, Sapolsky pointed out how the sophisticated thought processes of humans can also go haywire in ways that defy imitation in the animal world. Depression stands out as one of the few big exceptions as a mental illness that afflicts humans and animals alike."

Squaresville

A group of astronomers suggest the Milky Way galaxy's spiral arms could be straight rather than curved, Universetoday.com reports. "Most of us have this vision of a circular, spiral galaxy with gracefully curving spiral arms. Nope, says a group of astronomers from Brazil. The Milky Way might be square. Not like a box, but, in places, the spiral arms are straight rather than curved, giving the Milky Way a distinctly square look. And our solar system sits right on one of the straightest parts of an outer arm."

Will we squeak by?

"Trapped within a subterranean expanse of porous rock near Amarillo, Tex., is the world's largest supply of helium, the Federal Helium Reserve," The Washington Post reports. "The U.S. government is on track to sell the last of this stockpile within five years and let the private sector control the market. But some scientists fear that within a few decades, there may not be any helium to control. In fact, they say we're close to running out of the second most common element in the universe. (In our solar system, most helium is inside the sun.)" On Earth, the gas is created by the radioactive decay of rock over millennia, and it can be extracted from natural gas. Anyone getting an MRI depends on helium. It is also widely used in welding and is necessary to manufacture optical fibres and LCD screens.

Technophobia

"Even while still in the womb, hormones can shape a person's attitude toward new technology in the brain, according to researchers from Bath University. Prenatal testosterone exposure has an impact on the development of the brain, making it either easier or harder for a person to understand technology in later life, according to the scientists," The Daily Telegraph reports.

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Ornithology: Purple

A study finds that a wind turbine's colour affects how many insects it attracts, thus how many bats or birds it kills as they feed on their prey. White and light grey are second only to yellow as the most attractive to bugs. Purple is the least attractive.

BBC News

Bicycling: 15

Laws on bicycling under the influence are notoriously hazy in different jurisdictions. It's technically legal in Illinois. But last year in Germany, a blitzed student cycling home from a party was fined €500 ($700) and banned from riding on German streets for 15 years.

Thedailybeast.com

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Thought du jour

"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so."

Douglas Adams (1952-2001), English writer

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