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Keeping an open mind about vacationing aliens

Paul the alien shares the secrets of the galaxy in the comedy-adventure movie Paul.

Photo Credit: Double Negative/Un

Tourists from outer space

"Documents from Britain's Ministry of Defence classified archives show staff believed aliens could visit for "military reconnaissance," "scientific" research or "tourism," reports The Daily Telegraph. "In a 1995 briefing now published in the National Archives, a desk officer said the purpose of reported alien craft sightings "needs to be established as a matter of priority," adding there did not appear to be "hostile intent." The unnamed official said it was "essential that we start with open minds."

Seat of self-awareness disputed

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"Humanity may owe it all to fish," says The Sunday Times of London. "A neuroscientist has suggested that our self-awareness, consciousness and creativity are generated by a bundle of cells buried deep in a primitive part of the brain that first evolved to help fish escape predators. Donald Pfaff, PhD, professor of neurobiology at Rockefeller University in New York, has pinpointed the 'nucleus gigantocellularis,' a cluster of giant cells lying just above the top of the spinal cord, as the seat of the human 'soul.' Scientists have long argued about how humans, and other animals, get their sense of self. Almost all, however, believe that consciousness arises in the cortex and thalamus, which lie in the upper parts of the brain. Dr. Pfaff said: 'The origins of consciousness in the human brain are not at the thalamus and cortex. The most powerful and essential neurons for facilitating and maintaining the conscious state are deep in the lower brainstem, just above the spinal cord.'"

When accents are born

Accents are determined very early in life – "from the moment toddlers begin to speak, they copy the sounds they hear," writes psychologist Susan Blackmore in BBC Focus magazine. "Up to the age of puberty, children can pick up other accents easily, and immigrant children typically speak with less noticeably 'foreign' accents than their parents. If by 'determined' you mean unable to be changed, then that is quite variable but generally accents remain malleable until a person's early twenties. That said, the Queen's accent has changed measurably during the years of her long reign!"

Walking on water

"Lots of people have demonstrated that, surprisingly, if you fill a pool with water and cornstarch you can run across it," says MSNBC. "Stop, and you sink. How that happens, though, has been something of a mystery in fluid dynamics. The usual explanation for this 'walking on water' phenomenon: Suspensions – that's any liquid with particles in it – are non-Newtonian fluids that get thicker, or more viscous, as the rate of shear (deformation caused by, say, running across it) goes up. Common examples are ketchup, blood and toothpaste. 'Normal' fluids, like water, flow and their viscosity stays constant. Scott Waitukaitis and Heinrich Jaeger, physicists at the University of Chicago, have found that the situation is a bit different: When you hit a suspension, the particles get compressed and transition into a solid state for a few moments."

Heat getting to you?

If body temperature for a human is about 37 C (98.6 F), "why are equivalent outdoor temperatures so uncomfortable, even dangerous?" writes Katy Waldman of "Because our bodies need to disperse heat, and they can't do that effectively when the air temperature is close to our body temperature. … A person's thermal comfort, or satisfaction with the temperature of the environment, depends on factors as varied as metabolic rate, body fat, and age. For instance, those with heavier builds have a lower ratio of skin surface area to mass – they evaporate heat less efficiently than the small-framed. And fat absorbs warmth readily, making the obese more susceptible to heat stress. Other groups shown to be especially sensitive to hot weather include pregnant women, the disabled and people younger than 14 or older than 60. (The body's effectiveness at thermoregulation declines with age.)"

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Thought du jour

The Superstitious man is to the roguerascal what the slave is to the tyrant.

Voltaire (1694-1778)

French writer and philosopher

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