Spi­ders chow down more than we do col­lec­tively, which is very helpful to us

The Woolwich Observer - - LIVING HERE - WEIRD NOTES

Q. While re­view­ing maps of light­ning ac­tiv­ity, at­mo­spheric sci­en­tist Joel Thorn­ton and his col­leagues no­ticed a cou­ple of nar­row straight lines over the east In­dian Ocean and South China Sea. Light­ning hap­pened nearly twice as fre­quently along these lines com­pared to the sur­round­ing re­gions. Even­tu­ally they fig­ured out what was go­ing on. Can you? A. The lines turned out to cor­re­spond to two of the busiest ship­ping lanes in the world. Com­par­ing light­ning maps to en­gine ex­haust “soot” maps, a clear cor­re­la­tion emerged (“Geo­phys­i­cal Re­search Let­ters”). “These [soot] par­ti­cles act as the nu­clei on which cloud drops form and can change the ver­ti­cal de­vel­op­ment of storms, al­low­ing more cloud wa­ter to be trans­ported to high al­ti­tudes, where elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of the storm oc­curs to pro­duce light­ning. These ship­ping lanes are thus an on­go­ing ex­per­i­ment on how hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties that lead to air­borne par­tic­u­late mat­ter pol­lu­tion can per­turb storm in­ten­sity and light­ning.” Q. When do ma­chines make a point of adopt­ing good man­ners, so­cia­bil­ity and pa­tience? Just ask Sprite­bot. A. Ro­bots al­ready per­form many tra­di­tion­ally hu­man tasks, from vac­u­um­ing to surgery, but Sprite­bot and his kind may soon be­come Grandma’s spe­cial helpers. Last year, IBM and Rice Univer­sity un­veiled the Multi-Pur­pose Elder­care Robot As­sis­tant (MERA), a cus­tom­ized ver­sion of Japan’s Pep­per robot — an ivory-colored an­droid about the height of a sev­enyear-old that’s al­ready be­ing used as a friendly as­sis­tant in Ja­panese stores and homes, says Cather­ine Caruso in “Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can” mag­a­zine. MERA, as an at-home com­pan­ion for the el­derly, “records and an­a­lyzes videos of a per­son’s face and cal­cu­lates vi­tal signs such as heart and breath­ing rates… it can even con­verse with a pa­tient and an­swer health ques­tions.”

On a com­ple­men­tary front, roboti­cist Maja Matari and her team are de­sign­ing so­cially as­sis­tive ro­bots “that tap into hu­man so­cial dy­nam­ics to help se­niors help them­selves,” from coach­ing them in phys­i­cal ther­apy to aid­ing them in so­cial­iz­ing with friends and fam­ily. En­ter Sprite­bot, a one-foot-tall green owl robot that as­sists se­niors in play­ing games with their chil­dren or grand­chil­dren. “Re­searchers found that peo­ple talked to one an­other more and played games for longer when Sprite­bot was par­tic­i­pat­ing in, and mod­er­at­ing, their in­ter­ac­tions.”

As Matari points out, ro­bots could also of­fer some ben­e­fits over their fle­s­hand-blood coun­ter­parts: “Ma­chines are in­fin­itely pa­tient, they have [fewer] bi­ases to be­gin with, and they have no ex­pec­ta­tions.” Q. Which one of the fol­low­ing is said to con­sume more prey ev­ery year than hu­mans do? A. ele­phants B. go­ril­las C. rats D. spi­ders. A. Spi­ders (D). “The min­i­mum weight in tons of prey killed an­nu­ally by spi­ders world­wide is 400 mil­lion — equiv­a­lent to the amount of meat and fish eaten by hu­mans for the same pe­riod,” re­ports Steve Mirsky in “Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can” mag­a­zine. Pool­ing data from 65 pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tions, re­searchers Mar­tin Nyf­feler of the Univer­sity of Basil in Switzer­land et al. es­ti­mated that there are some 25 mil­lion met­ric tons of spi­ders world­wide and then com­puted how many prey they’d need to per­form es­sen­tial life tasks (“The Sci­ence of Na­ture” jour­nal). Their an­swer: Spi­ders eat “an an­nual prey amount in the range of 400-800 mil­lion met­ric tons,” largely in­sects and other small beast­ies such as spring­tail. In other words, spi­der pre­da­tion plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in con­trol­ling “many eco­nom­i­cally im­por­tant pests and dis­ease vec­tors.”

Con­cludes Mirsky: “So when you see a spi­der in your home, you could stomp it. Or put it out­side. Or you could thank it and wish it bon ap­petit!”

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