Jul. 24, 2013

Stellar Gold Rush, Monster Viruses, and the Mystery of Yawns and Cries

by Jordan Davidson

Click to enlarge images
Gold Mine
The universe is rich in gold bling, thanks in part to a recent short gamma ray burst that resulted from the collision of two neutron stars 3.9 billion light-years from Earth, according to a paper submitted to The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The gamma rays—high-energy light from an extremely energetic explosion—disappeared in short order following the collision, but a unique afterglow persisted (see the video), suggesting the presence of heavy elements, including a lot of gold—perhaps as much as the mass of 10 moons. Ka-ching.
Monster Viruses
These days, viruses aren’t considered solely puny and DNA-deficient. Over the past decade, scientists have found a bevy of genetically rich, giant viruses. For instance, French researchers recently reported getting down and dirty in sediment off the coast of Chile, where they discovered the largest virus known to man: a variety 1,000 times larger than the flu virus that carries more than 2,500 genes, according to a paper published in the journal Science. The researchers also found the so-called “pandoravirus” in an Australian freshwater pond, which underscores the fact that big viruses are hardly rare. Furthermore, they may live inside of us, although the jury’s out on what health effects they may have.
A Good Yawn for a Hot Head
Think you’re yawning ‘cuz you’re bored? Think again. A growing number of experts say we yawn to cool our brain. In one study, researchers surveyed two groups of people in Arizona about their yawning habits and found that they were nearly twice as likely to yawn in the winter, when they could inhale cold air that cools the brain, than in the summer, when the outdoor temperature is closer to the human body’s. Other research suggests that yawning when someone else does is a sign of empathy—and a person is more likely to yawn when family and friends do than when a stranger does.
Cry Babies
What a baby’s cry signifies is a parenting conundrum. Soon, Mom and Dad could get some interpretive help: Scientists at Brown University developed a cry analyzer that detects nuances imperceptible to the human ear that could be used to identify brain and nervous system problems. The system—which breaks baby cries down into 10-millisecond blocks and can measure their pitch, timing, distortion, and loudness—hasn’t been released yet to the public, but the team plans to make it available online.
About Jordan Davidson

Jordan Davidson is a freelance writer based in New York.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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