News for Nerds - July 8, 2011

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 7/8/2011 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - July 8, 2011

This week's News for Nerds covers the origins of barking dogs, the problem with having a wide face, and some science-y stuff about an asteroid the size of Arizona. But first: don't change that dial!

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For those of you that listen to the Dom and Jane Show each and every morning, please keep it up. You'll thank me later.

No, really. Keep listening. Researchers in England have just completed a study which shows that listening to the radio increases happiness and energy levels -- by a lot.

The study was based on interviews with more than 1,000 people, and it tracked not just how they respond to radio, but how they respond to all mass media. The intent was to determine if, and by how much, media influences the way people feel. And the results were surprising.

Participants were asked to rate their mood on a scale of -5 to 5 at different times of day throughout an entire week. They were also asked to list any media use that coincided with their mood rating. As it turns out, listening to the radio enhanced reported happiness levels 100 percent, and it boosted energy levels by 300 percent. (And just think: those British folks don't even have the Mindbender!)

Television and the internet also seemed to cause a positive spike, but not to the same degree. Actually, the segment of people who experienced the greatest overall jump in mood and energy levels were those who were multitasking -- listening to the radio while also surfing the 'net. Researchers speculate that this is because listeners were able to enjoy the 'company' of a radio broadcast while also achieving 'more practical things' online.

But I guess that all depends on whether you consider watching Boom Goes the Dynamite on YouTube 'achieving practical things.'

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We've all been victims of dogs that won't stop barking. Sometimes they're our dogs, sometimes they're the neighbors', but either way, it's frustrating. Especially at 2:00 in the morning.

So have you ever wondered why dogs bark so much? Well, according to at least one scientist, humans are to blame.

Hungarian ethologist Csaba Molnar says that domesticated canines bark like they do because humans have forced them to evolve that way. Molnar has been formulating his hypothesis for at least the last six years, and he's even developed a computer program that classifies dog barks.

It's long been accepted that wild dogs almost never bark. They whine, they squeal, and they might chew your face off -- but wild dogs rarely, if ever, make the barking sounds that you hear from your average Pomeranian. Why is that?

Molnar says that since there are no significant anatomical differences between domesticated and wild breeds, it all comes down to evolution. That is: the breeds that we keep in our homes have spent the past 50,000 years being bred to 'fit our requirements.'

The computer program mentioned above contains a statistical algorithm which shows conclusively that dog barks, across all breeds, share common patterns of acoustic structure. That means that if you frighten a beagle in Cincinnati, its 'alarm bark' contains the same pitch, repetition and harmonics as the 'alarm bark' of a frightened husky in Altoona.

Furthermore, Molnar's study showed that if you play back various types of dog barks to a group of humans, they can reliably identify the context in which the barks were made. In other words, we understand them.

There's more to the story (linked above), and I encourage you to read it all for yourself. But regardless, the next time that the dog across the street won't stop yapping, just remember: it's kinda your fault in the first place.

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I did an asteroid story last week, and it was a hit. There's another, very different, asteroid story in the news this week. So guess what? Back by popular demand, I give you an encore. Because that's who I am.

This time, it's a story about how a NASA probe is about to rendezvous with a giant asteroid the size of Arizona. The funny thing is, thousands of Snowbirds from the upper midwest are already inquiring about condos. Ahem.

The 330 mile-wide space rock is known as Vesta, and it's the second-largest object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The NASA probe Dawn is expected to enter Vesta's orbit late next week, and it will proceed to follow and study Vesta for the next year.

Astronomers hope that the mission will help us learn more about the early days of the solar system -- because, as one scientist put it, learning about distant objects like asteroids means going "back to our roots, the roots of the solar system."

Dawn has been chasing Vesta for the better part of the last four years. It launched in September of 2007 and has racked up about 1.7 billion miles since then. By the time of next week's rendezvous, both objects will be more than 117 million miles from Earth. And because of Vesta's size, there won't be a need for any dramatic collisions. Once Dawn comes within about 10,000 miles of Vesta, the probe will simply be sucked into its gravitational orbit.

After mapping the asteroid's cratered surface, studying its composition and investigating its geologic history, Dawn will then head off to the only larger object in the region -- the 605 mile-wide dwarf planet Ceres -- with an ETA of 2015.

This is exciting not only because it will teach us about the early days of our solar system, but also, as JPL project manager Robert Mase says, because "these are two of the last unexplored worlds in our inner solar system."

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And finally, there's the curious story of why men with noticeably wide faces cannot be trusted.

A study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that wide-faced men are more likely to lie and cheat than narrow-faced men. They were also shown to be better politicians, but now I'm just repeating myself.

Testing was done on a group of 192 graduate students to see how and when they would lie to gain a competitive advantage. As it turns out, men with wider faces were about three times more likely to lie, and about nine times more likely to cheat, than their narrow-faced peers. The same effect was not present in women.

One researcher points out, "Men's facial width-to-height ratio is generally a positive signal, evolutionary speaking. When men compete for resources with other men, relative facial width is a strong sign of aggressive, self-interested behavior... Men with larger facial ratios feel more powerful, and this sense of power then leads them to act unethically."

He went on to point out that we shouldn't paint all wide-faced men with the same suspicious brush. A separate study of Fortune 500 CEOs showed that those with wider faces were more likely to lead successful companies, which might mean they are channeling those aggressive tendencies into something a little more constructive.

More research is surely forthcoming, but in the meantime, consider yourself warned. Beware the wide-faced used car salesman.

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That's all for this week! But be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month!

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