Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Weird science: prepare for the zombie apocalypse

Scientists have re-enacted TV show The Walking Dead (pictured) with a simulated zombie invasion of Chicago. Photo / Gene Page/AMC
Scientists have re-enacted TV show The Walking Dead (pictured) with a simulated zombie invasion of Chicago. Photo / Gene Page/AMC

While post-election US has already been compared to an episode from The Walking Dead, researchers have actually worked out what a zombie apocalypse would look like.

Using a computational model developed to study the spread of less fictional diseases such as MRSA and Ebola, scientists from the Argonne National Laboratory found that it would take only 60 days for two million Chicagoans to be zombified.

The light-hearted project tested agent-based modelling simulations on a Halloween-themed slice of epidemiology, following the spread of a zombie virus and testing out "interventions" that could save humanity.

While the worst-case scenario found little resistance against the walking dead, strategies such as training populations to kill zombies or communications from city officials that tell people how to avoid them provided some more optimistic outcomes.

The results could even help officials and policymakers address ongoing crises and prepare for potential ones.

Do nice guys really finish last?

It's human nature that we're expected to choose the "best" partners - those most able and most willing to share resources with us - for social or sexual interactions.

But how should we choose when these qualities are opposed to each other?

When it comes to choosing a partner, is willingness or ability to help more important? Photo / 123RF
When it comes to choosing a partner, is willingness or ability to help more important? Photo / 123RF

In a new study, researchers from University College London have shown humans typically prioritise willingness to help (think generosity) over ability (think wealth) to help and that the preference is most pronounced when wealth is an unstable trait.

Their findings, just published in Royal Society Open Science, appear to support the idea that generosity is prioritised over quality or skill in a partner - something that has implications for our understanding of human social interactions.

Wary of snakes? It's in your DNA

Scientists have explored why humans have evolved to be wary of snakes. Photo / 123RF
Scientists have explored why humans have evolved to be wary of snakes. Photo / 123RF

Japanese researchers have used a new image processing tool to confirm human visual system has evolved specifically to detect snakes.

Some studies have suggested that the visual systems of humans and other primates are finely tuned to identify dangerous creatures such as snakes and spiders.

This is understandable because, among our ancestors, those who were more able to see and avoid these animals would have been more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation.

But it's been difficult to compare the recognition of different animals in an unbiased way because of their different shapes, anatomical features and levels of camouflage.

In a new study, scientists from Nagoya University applied an image manipulation tool and revealed that subjects could identify snakes in much more blurry images than they could identify other harmless animals in equivalent images.

The findings confirm the Snake Detection Theory; namely, that the visual system of humans and primates has specifically evolved in a way that facilitates picking out of dangerous animals.

Ageing bonobo? Might be time for glasses

Researchers have found uncanny similarities in bonobos when it comes to ageing and eyesight. Photo / 123RF
Researchers have found uncanny similarities in bonobos when it comes to ageing and eyesight. Photo / 123RF

One of human's closest primate relatives, the bonobo, can benefit from a good pair of glasses as they age.

A study in journal Current Biology sheds more light on long-sightedness in bonobos, which is most evident as older animals engage in grooming their peers.

The older they get, the longer they stretch their arms from the rest of their bodies as they groom - and long-sightedness was most evident when they reached the age of 40.

Like modern humans, this pattern seemed to be caused by a decline in the refractive power of the crystalline lens with age, something that could also have serious consequences for the survival and social lives of those older animals.

As for us humans, the findings in our bonobo relatives suggest that long-sightedness isn't a consequence of the modern lives we lead and all that time spent reading or staring at a screen.

Rather, it's a natural process of ageing rooted deep in our past.

'Insect bots' become reality

Could robot insects be tomorrow's little helpers? Photo / 123RF
Could robot insects be tomorrow's little helpers? Photo / 123RF

Miniature robots that can move and function like insects are now more than just the dreams of science fiction.

US researchers revealed to a conference in Tennessee this week how they'd not only
built microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) devices the size of insects, but had also created them to move just like real insects.

"Ants can move at speeds over 40 body lengths per second on all kinds of surfaces, so we have looked to them and other insects as the models for how we want our microrobots to behave," said Sarah Bergbreiter of the University of Maryland.

Using a micro-moulding process developed in their lab, the researchers fabricated the tiny bots with amazing locomotive abilities that are driven magnetically.

A 4mm robotic flea could jump 35cm in height as well as a 25mg, six-legged microrobot that could travel over flat or rough terrain at up to 5.9 body lengths per second.

The researchers envision a future where insect-like microrobots are used to search for survivors in the rubble of collapsed buildings, inspect bridges for signs of breakdown and provide low-cost sensor deployment for a variety of monitoring applications.

- NZ Herald

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