Whales and the Music Industry

Humpback whales use melodic sounds to attract females. A researcher group around Ellen C.Garland from the University of Queensland was interested in how those songs are transmitted through populations – and found astonishing similarities to the human pop music industry.

Humpback males in the Pacific Ocean attract females by singing the same song over and over again – until a new one gets invented, which then starts to spread again. The researchers report that one of those songs even turned our being such a ‘hit’ that it was sung by other humpbacks as far as the Indian ocean.

Sometimes an ‘old’ part of a song gets incorporated into the new song. The similarities of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” and Rebecca Black’s “Friday” come to mind here (although whale songs probably sound better).

Another similarity to the human music industry:  a clear west-to-east movement of innovation was found. While for humans the majority of new music comes from the US, the ‘headquarters’ of the humpback whale music industry is set in Australia.

Judita Huber


Beautiful People Don’t just get the Looks, they get the Brains too.

A study carried out by researchers at the London School of Economics suggests that there is a distinct positive association of physical attractiveness with general intelligence. Using large sample groups from the UK and USA, the results indicated that attractive males have IQs which are 13.6 points higher than average, with attractive women having 11.4 points above the average.

The cause of this link between looks and intelligence is still under debate. In a paper written by D. M. Buss in 1985 on human mate selection, an interesting theory was suggested in that “If females generally prefer intelligent males because they typically have higher incomes and status, and if most males prefer physically attractive females” then the two qualities will naturally tend to occur together in offspring, and therefore throughout society. This speculation was reiterated in a paper by Kanazawa and Kovar, Why Beautiful People are More Intelligent, in 2004.

An alternative explanation has been put forward more recently by evolutionary psychologists, suggesting that intelligence and physical attractiveness are positively linked  because they reflect the quality of an individual’s genes. Miller, in his paper The Mating Mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature describes this theory as based on a ‘general fitness factor’ model.

Whatever the cause, I’m now even more jealous of the Claudia Schiffers and Gisele Bundchens out there!

Hilary Boden


A Right Pain in the Space Shuttle

Painkillers have been found to lose their potency in space, a recent NASA-funded study has revealed, meaning that astronauts on longer missions may have to put up with their pain until it goes away naturally. By sending up four medical kits (each comprising of 35 different medicines) that were sent back down to earth over 28 months, it was found that over two-thirds of these medicines suffered a decrease in their required levels of active ingredients, with the longer that they were kept in space, the fewer medicines contained the appropriate dosage. Although painkillers usually last up to two years on Earth with no adverse effects, exposure to ionising radiation in space and changes in packaging from the original manufacturer are said to blame for this change in potency. Luckily, identification of the problem means that a solution can hopefully be found quickly, and that people on longer missions won’t have to put up with too many aches and pains in the future.

Katie Henderson


Real-life Tron…kind of.

Fancy playing some of your favourite video games for real? You might have to wait a little while longer, but a new era of gaming could very well be upon us –in fact it’s already begun.

A team comprising of Valve Software and psychologist Mike Ambinder have been working to develop a form of video game play that incorporates a player’s emotional and physiological changes into a game to create a more immersive and realistic experience. An already-tested example of this includes the use of measuring changes in heartbeat and galvanic skin responses, which causes the game to adapt to either make the game easier (for example if a player is getting too stressed) although this could be changed if a player enjoys more of a challenge.

Testing of similar apparatus has also been conducted by Lennart Nacke (a researcher at Saskatchewan University in Canada) using an Xbox 360 controller and physiological inputs to play a 2D shooter. Although players mostly responded positively during testing, there were some drawbacks as some participants did not like the lack of control over physiological functions (such as heartbeat) and the effects this had on gameplay. This was therefore changed so that indirect processes no longer had an effect upon critical aspects of the game. Although affective gameplay is still in its infancy and obviously requires a lot of tweaking, Nintendo are already set to release a heart-rate monitor for the Wii, and an emotion detector device has already been patented by Sony, showing that this technology is on its way.

Katie Henderson