World in Briefs (11.25.13)
If an elite group of scientists were tasked with determining what the most ridiculous animal was, the platypus would undoubtedly be one of the finalists. The combination of bird, reptile, and mammal traits creates an adorably hilarious creature. Sure, the males have a spur on their hind foot that can deliver extremely potent venom, but they’ve always just been cute little buddies, right? Not exactly. The discovery of a distinctive tooth in the fossil-rich Riversleigh site in northeastern Queensland indicates the existence of a giant extinct species of platypus. Unlike their modern cousins, these fearsome animals were about twice the size and had a powerful set of teeth. “It pretty well blew our minds,” says University of New South Wales professor Mike Archer. “And then bang out of the blue drops this monster. Platypus Godzilla.” What is so surprising about this discovery is that it suggests the evolutionary tree of the platypus might have side branches as opposed to the previously accepted linear nature. This discovery raises a lot more questions than it answers, but it is fascinating nonetheless. At the very least, this gives Phineas and Ferb an interesting potential plot idea.
Ah, rock-paper-scissors—that wonderful game that is employed by people of all ages to decide which undesirable task the loser must perform. Sure, it’s awful when you lose, but the sheer joy of winning justifies the risk. But, have you ever wanted to play the game with no hope of winning? If so, a group of Japanese scientists have got you covered. They have recently developed the Jaken robot—named after the game’s Japanese name. This device uses high-speed recognition to predict which option the opponent is going to choose. It is able to recognize what shape the human hand is making in just one millisecond. This technically means that it is cheating, but the machine is still impressive. “These robots are really fast at reaction, but there are scenarios where even a millisecond’s delay is not acceptable, such as accident avoidance or virtual stock markets,” says Edinburgh University professor of robotics Sethu Vijayakumar. This indicates that this research may have very useful practical applications. Whatever the case, people everywhere can unanimously agree that the robot revolution is coming soon.
The Earth is really rather remarkable. The conditions that need to occur to support complex life like humans are extremely precise. However, recent data indicates that our planet might not be so unique. Astronomers using data from NASA have calculated that there are at least 8.8 billion stars with Earth-size planets in the Goldilocks zone—or habitable temperature zone—in just our own galaxy. Scientists are now planning to launch powerful space telescopes to examine the atmospheres of these possible alternate earths to further determine their contents. While this by no means proves that life on other planets exists, it is a powerful argument that space is more complex than it may seem. We may one day find a planet where snakes are actually flying planes, a notion that turns the critically acclaimed film Snakes on a Plane on its head.