Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Strange but true: World's tiniest car race

US scientists have test-driven "nano-cars" on clean glass surfaces ahead of world's first-ever NanoCar Race this year. Photo / Rice University and North Carolina State University
US scientists have test-driven "nano-cars" on clean glass surfaces ahead of world's first-ever NanoCar Race this year. Photo / Rice University and North Carolina State University

It's just like F1 GP, but smaller. Much smaller. US scientists have developed the first "nanocars" - water-repellant, single-molecule vehicles - and then raced them against each other, as you would.

Each nanocar is a single, complex molecule with just a few hundred atoms, so any other molecules they encounter on the "roadway" - in their case, clean glass - are huge obstacles that act like sticky foam.

Each collision with one of these obstructions makes the nanocar slow down, eventually making them permanently stuck, and they didn't fare so well in open-air conditions.

The world's first-ever nanocar race is to take place in France later this year. The fun and games could ultimately prove useful tools for medicine and bottom-up manufacturing.

Smarter young kaka

If you're a kaka, older doesn't necessarily mean wiser.

A new study by Victoria University researchers shows the younger of the quirky native parrots are better at problem-solving than their older counterparts.

"We tested the cognitive skills of over 100 wild kaka ranging in age from four months to 13 years," said PhD student Julia Loepelt.

"Of the 24 birds that participated in all three of our problem-solving tasks, juveniles were the most efficient problem-solvers in all three tasks."

The tasks, carried out at Zealandia in Wellington, involved pulling out a wooden block, flipping a lid and pulling a string to access food.

"Young kaka tried to solve the problems using more creative methods and they also tried for longer," Ms Loepelt said.

"These traits may be particularly beneficial to young kaka, helping them to learn about their environment and discover new strategies to find food."

Are we destined to become robots?

While scientists tell us we evolved from the Homo habilis species, millions of years ago, our evolutionary end-point could be as part-machine. At least that's the argument of two Australian evolution experts, who say the rapid uptake of technology and the growing opportunities for artificial brain enhancement is putting humans on the path to becoming cyborgs.

In their new book The Dynamic Human, Professor Maciej Henneberg and Dr Aurthur Saniotis chart the full scope of human evolution, with a look at the past, present and future development of our species.

They said the boundary between man and machine was already being "blurred" with devices enhancing our lives, such as eye glasses, hearing aids, pacemakers, bionic ears, heart valves and artificial limbs.

Future humans would more readily combine organic material with much more sophisticated technology, but they cautioned that such enhancements must not ignore our highly complex biology.

Penny for your thoughts?

Often wonder what the person next to you is thinking? You might be high in mind-reading motivation, or "MRM", a newly coined term describing the tendency to engage with the mental states and perspectives of others.

The US researchers behind the new theory say it involves observing and interpreting bits of social information, like whether the person next to you is rhythmically drumming his fingers because he's anxious or if someone is preoccupied because she's gazing off into the distance.

"We're not talking about the psychic phenomenon or anything like that, but simply using cues from other people's behaviour, their non-verbal signals, to try to figure out what they're thinking," said Melanie Green, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo, who explains it in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

People high in "MRM" tended to be more co-operative, worked better in teams, considered people in greater detail and had a "nuanced understanding" of those around them.

Why 'the moral high ground' is hard to beat

Simply telling people their opinions are based on morality will make them stronger and more resistant to counter-arguments, a new study suggests. Researchers found that people were more likely to act on an opinion - what psychologists call an attitude - if it was labelled as moral and were more resistant to attempts to change their mind on that subject.

The results show why appeals to morality by politicians and advocacy groups can be so effective, said Ohio State University psychology doctoral student Andrew Luttrell, lead author of a study that involved experiments with hundreds of students.

"People held on to their moral beliefs in a way they didn't for other values we studied, like tradition, equality and practicality," he said. "But what was remarkable was how easy it was to lead people into thinking their views were based on moral principles."

- NZ Herald

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