On This Week’s Show

  • A new land speed record
  • Are we alone? Are we intelligent life?
  • A brainless blob

Science News with Nevena Hristozova, and Chris MacAlister

Scientific integrity bill advances in U.S. House with bipartisan support

Nevena Hristozova

  • The US House of Representatives’ science committee has advanced bills promoting scientific integrity policies with bipartisan support.
  • The Scientific Integrity Act would codify principles of scientific integrity for federal agencies that fund, conduct or oversee scientific research.
  • If adopted into law, the bill would require the head of each agency would have to develop, adopt and enforce their own policy for dispute resolution and integrity code and submit it both to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and to Congress.
  • The agencies would also be required to appoint a scientific integrity officer, who would be charged with posting annual reports on the agency’s misconduct record.
  • It would prevent agency officials from interfering with scientific research, including through putting their thumbs on the scale of findings or blocking the distribution of data or public communications. 
  • The measure would give scientists the right to review information their agencies distribute about their work to correct any technical inaccuracies.
  • Federal scientists would be free to talk to the media if contacted, and agencies would be required to offer scientists the option to respond directly to press inquiries about their work.

Desert ant runs so fast it covers 100 times its body length per second

Chris MacAlister

  • Cataglyphis bombycina, the Saharan Silver Ant lives in a desert, a very hot desert. The ground temperature can regularly reach 60oC (140F).
  • Whilst the coast is clear the use their impressive speed to scavenge for anything that has fallen victim to the intense heat.
  • This record had been suspected for some time. An estimate was made in 1983 that they may be able to travel at around 1 meter per second.
  • An estimate is all that has remained for nearly 40 years until Sarah Pfeffer and her team at Ulm University in Germany came along armed with high speed cameras. Whilst the ants did fall shy of the 1 meter per second estimate at 85.5 cm per second they weren’t all that far off.
  • Pfeffer has posted her findings in the Journal of Experimental Biology where she also reveals that the ants unusually short legs take up to 40 steps per second. Not only are their legs unusually short but the ants move them in an unusual pattern too, although it seems likely that this has less to do with generating speed and more to do with efficiently moving over the sandy ground.

New Scientist, Nature

Evolution tells us we might be the only intelligent life in the universe

Nevena Hristozova

  • This paper outlines the fact that human intelligence required a lot of other evolutionary developments to come into existence. By multiplying the probabilities of each individual evolutionary step we get the overall probability of intelligence as the ultimate evolutionary development to occur. The roughly estimated odds become one in 100 trillion.
  • However, there is a part from that article which according to me is intrinsically flawed. The article assumes the only probable type of intelligence is human intelligence. On this podcast, we have discussed before that the human centric intelligence is probably a significant bias introduced by scientists looking for an intelligence similar to ours.
  • I personally have the same problem with us looking for life elsewhere than Earth. We operate under the same presumption that life can only exist based on carbon, RNA or DNA and metabolic processes similar to what we can observe on Earth. We do that because we can’t rationally imagine other types of life-forms and respectively can’t go look for them. 
  • We know that it’s definitely possible for life to have evolved based on silicon. But we have no idea how this life would have evolved, given that silicon has very similar properties to carbon but also being a different element it might have led to different molecular structure of life and hence evolution.
  • It might be completely impossible for us to detect life, and by extension intelligence, elsewhere outside of our planet if we focus entirely on looking for life or intelligence of the same type as the earthly ones. And yes human type of intelligence may well be one in a trillion flukes of evolution, but that doesn’t mean that intelligence altogether is not common in the universe.

Paris Zoo Unveils Bizarre, Brainless ‘Blob’ Capable of Learning—and Eating Oatmeal

Chris MacAlister

  • So, this story comes to us from Smithsonian.com where it is entitled “Paris Zoo Unveils Bizarre, Brainless ‘Blob’ Capable of Learning—and Eating Oatmeal”. And in its most basic form this story is about a zoo opening a new exhibit. And rather than calling this creature by its real name, they have dubbed it “the blob” in honour of a 1950’s grabe B horror flick.
  • As a zoology graduate I was always going to be all over this story, however this creature is not an animal. And I use the word creature intentionally as it’s not a plant or fungus either. But it is one of the most fascinating creatures on this planet. It’s actually called a slime mould (Physarum polycephalum) and if a zoo offered to show you a creature that looks like someone has sneezed on a log then you’d probably not be too keen to check it out. 
  • Personally, I would go and check it out. Not because it is an impressive visual spectacle but more as an acknowledgment of what it is. You can go and see a decent painting anywhere but people flock to see the Mona Lisa because of the meaning that it carries and this is what slime moulds are like or me, sort of. So if you’re already at the Louvre, why not jump on the Metro to take you 9km to the zoo too?
  • So why am I waxing lyrical about slime moulds? Firstly, they are an evolutionary odd-ball, formally classified as a “what the hell is that?” or to give it its proper scientific title a Protist.
  • It’s not just their classification that is weird. They are amoeboid, singled celled creatures, but they can grow to be meters in size. They contain multiple nuceli within the single cell. Whilst they can spread in a mould like fashion, they can also locomote and they travel woodland floors hunting microbes and fungal spores. The zoo raised theirs on oatmeal. And whilst there are people struggling to cope with the fact that humans can have multiple genders, slime moulds have 720 sexes!
  • Whilst all of these things are interesting, my favourite thing about slime mould is that it is intelligent. It doesn’t have a brain, it doesn’t have brain cells, it is a cell!
  • Slime moulds can solve mazes and this is still at the basic end of what they can do.
  • They aren’t great fans of light, preferring dark, damp areas. Back in 2006, at the University of Southampton, a robot was built and provided with a slime mould pilot. The mould was able to drive the robot away from light to hide in shaded areas.
  • In fact, slime moulds are so intelligent that humans are starting to turn to them for wisdom. In 2010 researchers from the University of Oxford and Hokkaido University in Japan found that slime mould formed networks amazingly similar to the Tokyo transit system when linking up oat flakes positioned like surrounding cities. Let’s just focus on that for a second. A mould has managed to recreate a complex and efficient transport system designed by professional, qualified humans!
  • It’s slime moulds ability to exhibit this decentralised intelligence that are making them a case study for people looking to develop intelligence systems that could be used in things like autonomous cars.

 ScienceAlert, Smithsonian

Pub Quiz

Can you keep up with our crack team of quiz masters?

In Closing

Shout out to Abby Tabor, one of the early guests of Blue Streak Science, and now doing some brilliant work with the NASA Ames Research Center.

Abby hosts NASA in Silicon Valley Live on YouTube. 

Check it out!

That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.


Apple Podcasts


This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team.

Our hosts today were Nevena Hristozova, and Chris MacAlister.

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us. 

And remember…follow the science!

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