Scientific Chicago with Neil Shubin

Mosquitoes, Spatial Learning, Lefties, Higgs Boson Particle

Why are there so few lefties? How can we help our children become better in math? And what's all the hype about the Higgs boson particle? Our science guy, Neil Shubin, joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to help answer these questions and more in tonight's Scientific Chicago.

Heat, Rainfall Affect Pathogenic Mosquito Abundance in Catch Basins
Two University of Illinois researchers found that rainfall and temperature affect the number of two different types of mosquitoes linked to West Nile Virus. Marilyn O’Hara Ruiz, a professor of pathobiology, conducted the study with graduate student Allison Gardner. They conducted the study using mosquito larvae that was collected from catch basins in a southwest suburb. The researchers examined the different weather factors that affected the different levels of mosquito larvae in the basins. They found that high numbers of larvae are associated with low rainfall and high temperatures. Checking storm water catch basins for these two mosquito species is important in helping track the West Nile Virus in populated areas, Ruiz said.

“Catch basins are important breeding sites for the vector of West Nile Virus – the Culex mosquitoes,” Ruiz said.

The researchers also found that rainfall was the main factor in determining the presence of larvae. Some water is needed for the larvae to develop, but excess rain flushes the larvae out before they can completely develop. High temperatures also contributed to more larvae in the catch basins because the larvae are able to develop faster in warmer temperatures. The West Nile Virus first appeared in Illinois in 2002, infecting 884 people in the state. Mosquitoes become infected with West Nile when they feed on infected birds. Infected mosquitoes then transmit the virus to humans and other birds through mosquito bites.

For more on this study, click here.

Learning About Spatial Relationships Boosts Understanding of Numbers
Playing with puzzles as a kid can actually help to solve math problems later on. Scholars at the University of Chicago found that children who understand how shapes fit together have an advantage when it comes to learning the number line and solving math problems. Activities that foster spatial learning also help children develop the abilities to read maps and graphs, and understand diagrams -- all skills that are shown to be important in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We found that children’s spatial skills at the beginning of first and second grades predicted improvements in linear number line knowledge over the course of the school year,” said Elizabeth Gunderson, a University of Chicago postdoctoral scholar.

Playing with shapes and understanding how things fit together helped foster children’s spatial learning at a young age. This helped them better understand the number line, which in turn boosted their performance on a mathematics calculation task.

“This is important since spatial learning is malleable and can be positively influenced by early spatial experiences,” added co-author Susan Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology at U of C.

It’s important to give children these learning opportunities at an early age because it can give them an advantage in certain subjects later on, says Gunderson.

“Improving children’s spatial skills may have positive impacts on their future success in science, technology, engineering or mathematics disciplines, not only by improving spatial thinking but also by enhancing the numerical skills that are critical for achievement in all STEM fields,” Gunderson said.

To learn more about this study, click here.

Shedding Light on Southpaws: Sports Data Help Confirm Theory Explaining Left-Handed Minority in General Population
Lefties have always been perplexing in society. While they represent only 10 percent of the general human population, lefties make up more than 10 percent of elite athletes. In baseball, more than 50 percent of elite hitters are left-handed, well above the general population rate. So why is this? Two Northwestern University researchers developed a mathematical model to explain this balance, or lack thereof. They report that the rarity of left-handedness has to do with balance of cooperation and competition in human evolution.

“The more social the animal -- where cooperation is highly valued -- the more the general population will trend toward one side,” said Abrams, an assistant professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. “The most important factor for an efficient society is a high degree of cooperation. In humans, this has resulted in a right-handed majority.”

If societies were entirely cooperative, everyone would be same-handed. But if competition were more important, one could expect the population to be 50-50. The new model can accurately predict the percentage of left-handers in a group -- whether it’s human, parrots or athletes -- based on the degrees of cooperation and competition in the social interaction.This model helps to explain why right-handedness has dominated at 90 percent for over 5,000 years. Cooperation favors same-handedness -- for sharing the same tools, for example. But it also helps to explain why some sports are disproportionately dominated by lefties due to competition. Physical competition favors the unusual, so in a fight, a left-hander in a right-handed world would have an advantage.

“The accuracy of our model’s predictions when applied to sports data supports the idea that we are seeing the same effect in human society,” Abrams said.

For more on this study, click here.

Higgs Boson Particle
Physicists at the largest particle accelerator in the world announced their findings on the Higgs particle last Wednesday. Jorge Cham, author of PhD Comics, visited the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) earlier this year, and created this cartoon describing their search for the Higgs particle. Read more about the Higgs particle findings.