This Week in Research: Number Sense; Jitterbugging Through Space

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One of my favorite forms of procrastination is participating in online experiments. It’s really quite noble, if you think about it — it’s for Science, after all. And in the name of Science (and procrastination), I’ve clicked on boxes, tried to sort colors, typed words as quickly as possible, and done all sorts of other tasks. But this is the first time I’ve actually seen the results of one of these experiments published — and I have to say, I feel a little proud.

Johns Hopkins professor of psychology and brain science, Justin Halberda, turned to people like me — more than 10,000 of us, in fact — to study “number sense” in a wide sample of subjects. Number sense isn’t the same as being good at math (although the two are related); it’s actually the inborn  cognitive gut sense for numbers. This is some deep, evolutionary stuff:  number sense is what allows humans (and other animals) to quickly size up the number of objects they might see in an everyday situation. (Quick, how many zebras are in that herd? Which tree has the most apples? Which grocery store check-out lane has the fewest other customers?)

Halberda invited participants to play an online game that tested number sense. Different numbers of yellow or blue dots flashed on the screen, and then participants had to say which were more plentiful. Halberda tracked participants age and their self-reported SAT scores to see how number sense changed through the lifespan.

“Perhaps most striking to us were the large developmental improvements that we found in people’s gut number sense precision, improvements that continued into the 30s,” he said. “Either the maturing brain or the everyday activities people engaged in helped improve the precision of their number sense throughout the first three decades of life.” Want to see how you measure up? Take the test here.

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There’s a lot of galactic material out there, and much of it remains mysterious and unexplored. Case in point:  scientists have never thoroughly explored a comet.

Now, NASA might start to fill that knowledge gap, and a team of University of Maryland astronomers are hoping to be the ones who get to do it. The incredibly aptly named Jessica Sunshine, principal investigator, outlined a pitch to craft a Comet Hopper, a bouncy little craft that would jitterbug its way across the surface of a comet (comet 46P/Wirtanen, to be exact) and send back 4D data. This would, in turn, give Earthbound scientists a better understanding of the role comets may have played in the development of life on earth.

“We’ve had some amazing cometary flybys,” says Sunshine, “but they have given us only snapshots of one point in time of what a comet is like. Comets are exciting because they are dynamic, changing throughout their orbits. With this new mission, we will start out with a comet that is in the cold, outer reaches of its orbit and watch its activity come alive as it moves closer and closer to the Sun.”

The project is currently in the final round of NASA pitches; they’re competing against two other projects, including the Titan Mare Explorer, a Johns Hopkins-led mission that would delve into the large methane-ethane sea on Titan, Saturn’s moon.



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