Week In Review: Science You Can Count On

UNC-TV Science Week In Review: October 24, 2013
Science You Can Count On


Repeatability and reliability are two of the hallmarks of a robust scientific result. Two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen will combine to make water whether you combine them in Beaufort, Banner Elk or Berlin, Germany. You will also make water every time you combine these ingredients at the right ratio (with a few ions and molecules of peroxide thrown in).

This type of certainty is the gold standard for experimental results, and very rarely do scientists achieve it. They do, however, publish results that they can at least count on to provide an accurate picture of what’s happening. 

Babies with Innate Number Sense May be Better at Math
We begin with a pun: counting. Most animals do not have a system of abstract systems for numbers like humans do. A dog can’t tell you whether you have three or five treats, but it does know that five is more than three.

Humans, before we learn to count, have no choice but to operate the same way. Babies have an innate knowledge of more and less, called primitive number sense. A research group from Duke University recently found that babies with a greater primitive number sense, perform better in math later in life.

They tested 48 babies at six-months to see how well they recognized changing numbers of dots on a screen, and scored them based on whether they chose to look at changing numbers or the same number. Three years later, the group, led by Elizabeth Brannon Ph.D. and Ariel Starr, gave the same kids a math test, an IQ test and a number comprehension test. The babies who were more interested in changing numbers at six months did better on math tests and number recognition on average.

The study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may help rethink how educators can expose young children to math.

Vitamin B-12 Useful in 3D Printing
Engineers from UNC Chapel Hill and NC State University recently found a new use for riboflavin, better known as vitamin B-12. They found that it can be useful in a chemical process in 3D printing.

The mechanism is called 2-photon initiated polymerization. In order to make polymers (long strings of repeated molecules) chemists must alter a single molecule. That first one binds to a second, and passes on the alteration, then the second does the same to attach a third and on and on and on. That first alteration comes from initiators, and it turns out, riboflavin is a great initiator for a specific polymer that can form specific 3D structures.

Riboflavin is attractive because the body knows what to do with it, so the 3D polymers it initiates may make be useful for surgical or implant technology. But not quite yet. The polymer that lead researcher Roger Nayaran initiated with riboflavin was polyethylene glycol diacrylate, which is a skin and eye irritant.

The research was published in the journal Regenerative Medicine.

Software for Lifesaving Cockroaches
You may remember from earlier this year, we reported about a team of engineers from NC State University who found a way to remotely control cockroaches. Why? A potential application involves using those cockroaches to map building wreckage that humans or dogs can’t get into.

Now that same group has developed the software to make that mapping possible. The cockroaches will scatter once they enter the wreckage. Then they receive commands to walk to a wall then walk along the wall. They repeat this process while researchers pick up radio signals from the cockroaches’ backs. They process the radio signals through their algorithm and develop a map of the wreckage.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.