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April 7, 2013

Procrastination Inflation (and more): Science Sensei 3

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New Caledonian Crows - for more videos and images and info on the tool-using crows

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This week on Science Sensei: a surfer in space, spying on crows, and taking your time on purpose.

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One of the main things that's long been thought to separate us from "lower" animals is our ability to make and use tools. Carving a stick into a spear and using it as a weapon; figuring out how to control and work with fire; television remote controls – superior tool use sets us apart in the food chain.

While other primates have been observed to use tools in the wild, it's considered a rarity. But researchers at Oxford University have for the first time recorded sophisticated tool use in the wild among a type of bird that has been known to use tools in captivity.

Christian Rutz and his colleagues at Oxford's Behavioural Ecology Research Group attached miniature cameras to the tails of New Caledonian crows on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. The video that came back showed new and advanced use of tools by these birds in the wild.

For instance, it was known that the crows use tools like sticks to dig into rotting wood and tree crowns, but the cameras reveal the birds also using tools on the ground. One behavior – poking through loose leaves using grass-like stems – showed both a method and material of tool use that had never been seen before.

The video even showed that some crows take quite a liking to particular tools. One crow carried a stick in its mouth and reused it. This suggests that the birds do not think all tools are created equal -- that particular stick in the bird's mouth was apparently superior enough to warrant the extra effort required to keep it around and fly with it to a new location.

Their research, published in the October 2007 issue of the journal Science, was funded by the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Easy Does It

Haste makes waste, but could taking a long time ever be a good thing? Researchers at University of Singapore and University of Toronto found that when it comes to performing certain services, going slow might be to your advantage.

Writing in the October 2007 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, Catherine Yeung and Dilip Soman report that consumers often use the length of time a service takes as a measure of its quality: The longer something takes, the better the quality or value seems. They call this the "duration heuristic."

Yeung and Soman asked volunteers to judge the price of a lock-picking service. Surprisingly, people considered the service to have been a better value when the service took longer than they did when the lock was picked faster. But this was only true when they were prompted with the price of the service first.

In a separate experiment, price again seemed to be a crucial factor. The researchers asked volunteers to judge the quality of exercise programs of different lengths of time. Absent a cost for the program, people did not judge it based on its duration. But when cost was introduced, it allowed the volunteers to make a price-per-minute assessment, and led many to prefer the longer session, even when there was no benefit to taking more time.

Their work was funded by the National University of Singapore, Republic of Singapore, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Killer Waves, Dude

Astronomers have long puzzled over the fact that the corona – the outermost part of the sun's atmosphere – is hundreds of times hotter than the surface of the sun itself. Now new research led by Steve Tomczyk of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) may help explain why.

Tomczyk and his team were the first to observe Alfvén waves, oscillations caused by magnetic fields, in the corona. These waves transport energy outward from the Sun and had previously been detected in the heliosphere outside the sun, but not within the corona.

The researchers, funded by the National Science Foundation, were surprised to find them "all over the corona." As they wrote in the August 31, 2007, issue of Science, Tomczyk and his colleagues hope the discovery will lead to better predictions of solar storms, as well as new insights into the fundamental behavior of solar magnetic fields, and perhaps a fuller understanding of how the sun affects earth and the solar system.

Alfv̩n waves were previously difficult to detect in the corona because, unlike other waves, they do not lead to large-intensity fluctuations. But Tomczyk and his team got around that problem by using a relatively new instrument РNCAR's Coronal Multichannel Polarimeter Рwhich collects data from the corona as frequently as every 15 seconds. Their observations were made possible by the speed of the instrument and its ability to simultaneously capture intensity, velocity, and polarization images of the solar corona.

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