Last Week in Science (5th Nov 2023)


The imagining brain of rats

Brain has the power to relive,
Places that were visited in the past.
As long as the rewards they give.

Do you know that the London taxi drivers need to remember a map of 25,000 streets to get their licence? This shows the immense capacity of the human brain to remember maps. We can visualise these maps in our heads. But is it a capability that is restricted to the human brain? There are so many animals that are master navigators, for example rats but can they also imagine the world like we do? 

A recent study answers these questions, where rats were made to run on a spherical treadmill in a virtual reality created space by giving them rewards for reaching specific spots in that VR space. This movement created a pattern of brain activity. Next the rats were taken off the treadmill but shown the same VR space, although they were not moving physically but their brain created the same pattern of activity as when they reached out to various objects while on the treadmill. Although, it is not easy to imagine what the rats would have been imagining but this does qualify as imagination of a route by creating a mental map.

And in another set of experiments - called as the Jedi experiments - the brain activity of the rats could move a box on a screen in this VR space. The study offers possibilities of understanding how we navigate our surroundings and aiding individuals with sensory deficits to move around safely.

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Opening the lid 

Photo: NASA/Erika Blumenfeld & Joseph Aebersold

It took 7 years to bring back a part of the rock,
that has been around since the formation of our solar system,
but now we are struggling to open its lock.

Asteroids are fragments of matter that was left out of becoming a planet as our solar system formed. A lot of information can thus be gathered by investigating what these asteroids are made up of. They are referred to minor planets at times as they can also have their own moons and they revolve around the sun just like the planets. 

Asteroid Bennu, 4.5 billion years old passes the Earth every 6 years. NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission which was sent 6 years back to the asteroid, brought back a sample from the surface of Bennu in this September. It was surprising that when the sample collector touched the surface, dust particles enveloped the OSIRIS, showing that the asteroid's surface is not rocky as it was thought. Now the only trouble is that the team at NASA is not able to open the capsule that brought back the sample. Nature (the journal) has also asked their readers to send in suggestions of how they stop their hiccups so as to help the team at NASA. You will have to read more on your own if you want to find out how hiccups and the OSIRIS-REx mission capsule have in common.

Symbology Alert: The name Bennu comes from Egyptian mythology, where Bennu is a bird similar to the Greek phoenix that symbolises rebirth, and is said to be present at the time of the creation, in this case referring to the creation of the solar system. It is also associated another Egyptian mythological God called Osiris (which is the name of the NASA mission) that symbolises life, creation and resurrection. We are hopeful of getting information about the formation of the solar system from these pieces of asteroid Bennu.  

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AI and humans

With the rise of Artificial Intelligence, in addition to the threat of many jobs becoming obsolete, the dangers of development of warfare and bioweapons is hanging on our heads. Another threat is of not getting meaningful information or worse misleading information from AI models. It becomes imperative in scenarios of weather prediction of disease prediction. 

Recent high profile summits in US and UK, initiatives by Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak, respectively brought forth the conversation of how innovation is needed in the AI space. There was no mention of regulatory framework development, which was the topic of discussion in a parallel AI fringe event conducted by individual researchers. They have put forth the need for transparency in using and sharing of how the information has been generated by AI along with the representation of social scientists, who can bring in the need for ethics,  in the discussions on AI.


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