Weird Science Weekly: Go-carting babies help researchers study fear


Weird Science happens all around us, every day. In this instalment of Weird Science Weekly, I gather some of the past week's strangest examples, such as fear studies using go-carting babies, linguistic legerdemain and invisibility wet-suits.

Go-cart babies help researchers study fear of heights

It wouldn't have been my first guess, but researchers at Berkeley guessed they could shed light on the subject of fear by putting babies in go-carts. Weird, right? But apparently successful.

The team set out to investigate why babies suddenly seem to become cautious of falling from heights after they learn to crawl. Joseph Campos, the leader of the research team, told New Scientist: "Mothers almost universally report that their babies go through a phase wherein they will go over the edge of a bed or a changing table if a caregiver doesn't intervene." The point at which they become scared and avoid that sort of thing is, apparently, right about six weeks after they learn to crawl.

The method the researchers used to explore this sounds so completely bizarre on a number of levels. Babies who hadn't yet learned to crawl were put into go-carts that they were able to control with joysticks. After three weeks of the babies apparently zooming around in these go-carts, the researchers exposed the driving babies and a group of non-driving babies (the 'control') to a 1.3 metre drop-off.

They found that the babies who knew how to drive their carts got scared as they dipped towards the edge of the drop-off, which showed up as an increase in their heart rates. Babies who hadn't learned the skill weren't fazed.

So what's the conclusion? It seems to mean that your brain learns to pay attention to additional visual information once you learn to move yourself around. Before you can crawl, you don't have process much more than what's right in front of you, and balance isn't much of an issue. Once you're mobile, however, your brain has to juggle a lot more to keep your body upright, moving in the direction you're headed, and to (hopefully) keep you from stepping off a cliff.

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Linguistic 'wizards' reveal J.K. Rowling's sleight of hand

A bit of technological wizardry went into revealing that newcomer-author Robert Galbraith was none other than literary juggernaut J.K. Rowling. Acting on a hunch, a writer for the UK paper The Times provided a digital copy of 'Galbraith's' debut novel, The Cuckoo's Calling, along with some other works for comparison, to two linguistic researchers engaged in what's known as stylometry — the study of how the words we use and the particular way we put them together can act as our literary fingerprint.

The researchers, Peter Millican of Oxford University and Patrick Juola of Duquesne University, are the designers of separate software projects intended to compare stylistic similarities and differences between texts. Juola goes into detail about the process in a blog post, and the Millican spoke to BBC Radio 5, but Popular Science sums up the key analysis points: It was done by looking at the distribution of word lengths in the books, the 100 most common words used, pairs of words that appeared together and four-character groups, known in the stylometry biz as 'character fourgrams'.

While the programs can't identify for certain who is the author of a particular work, they are able to narrow the field by indicating who is a more likely and who isn't. In the case of The Cuckoo, Juola's tests had no 'hits' for mystery author Ruth Rendell, whereas Rowling "showed up as the winner or the runner-up in each instance." These suspicions were, of course, confirmed when Rowling was questioned directly and admitted having written pseudonymously.

Case closed, then!

Wetsuits make you invisible to sharks

It might finally be safe to go back to the water for surfers. Shark Attack Mitigation Systems, working with a team from The Oceans Institute at The University of Western Australia, has released several new designs intended to make swimmers and surfers a more difficult target for the ocean predators.

The suits exploit a number of weaknesses in sharks' visual abilities, including the fact that sharks see in black and white and that, while they locate prey using a number of their sense, vision is the most important in the final moments before an attack.

If your summer travel plans will take you to shark-infested waters, you may be happy to know that SAMS has already licensed the designs to a production company.

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Urine-powered cell phone charger

Turning the phrase "waste-not, want-not" on its head, scientists at the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol are turning waste into power; human waste, that is. Using a fascinating little energy converter called a 'microbial fuel cell', the group has managed to turn 'Number 1' into enough charge for a cellphone that they could send a text and make a short call.

The microbial fuel cells are home to bacteria who dine on chemicals in the urine and generate electricity naturally as they 'digest' it. The fuel cell is, thus far, fairly limited in power and kind of large — about the size of a car battery — but the hope is that with further refinement, people could be peeing their way to an infinitely-renewable energy supply. Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulous, one of the researchers involved, said in a press release "One product that we can be sure of an unending supply is our own urine."

Beavers have a surprising role in climate change

Canada's furry little mascots occupy an unexpected spoke on the carbon cycle wheel, according to a new study by a professor at Colorado State University. We all know beavers build dams, sometimes to the chagrin of the humans who lay claim to the land where the little engineers work. Carbon is always in the climate change spotlight, usually in the form of CO2, but it's also present in every organic compound, wood included. So beaver dams are, among other things, piles of stored carbon. While trees cut down and decomposing on dry land release carbon to the atmosphere, it wasn't clear what role submerged trees played.

Geology professor Ellen Wohl was curious about just that question, and, as reported by, took samples from areas known as 'beaver meadows' in Colorado's Rocky Mountain Park. The beaver meadows are regions made wet by beavers damming water flow in the area; Wohl collected 29 sediment samples from such sites around the park.

Somewhat surprisingly, she found that the sediment of the wet beaver meadows, where dams were still in place, contained 4 times as much carbon as those areas where dams were abandoned. So all those wet areas created by the dams were acting as carbon sinks — areas of carbon sequestration, preventing carbon dioxide from leaking back into the atmosphere.

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Keep your eyes on the wonders of science, and if you spot anything particularly strange you'd like me to check out for next week, comment below or drop me a line on Twitter!

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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