“Making sense of sound is essential for survival,” says Nina Kraus of Northwestern University, “and it’s one of the hardest things we ask our brains to do.” From language to potential threats, these sounds can come at us quickly, changing over the course of microseconds. By measuring brain waves, Kraus is able to “look at how the brain processes essential signals in sound” such as timing and tambor. These measurements can be used predictively by modeling anticipated reading ability through brain wave responses to sound inputs. Musically oriented kids have statistically been shown to be better learners, but the mechanism behind these observations was unknown. Kraus has shown that poverty indices correlate with exposure to language. “Children whose mothers have less education,” she explains, “have heard three millions fewer words by age five than their peers with more highly educated families.” Remedial music education changed brain wave response and, remarkably, improved sound processing.
Wolfgang Ketterle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aims to cool material more than a billion times colder than the deep-freeze of interstellar space, with the hopes of learning fundamental aspects of physical laws. At lower temperatures, atoms “march in lockstep, which is related to supercooling and superconductivity,” he notes. To see these molecular underpinnings, Ketterle and his colleagues developed a distinct form of matter, the Bose-Einstein condensate. If the observed superconducting phenomena could be translated to room temperature conditions, global energy systems could be made much more efficient, as 7-10% is typically lost through transmission.
Half of 90 year-olds are stricken by dementia, a physically, emotionally, and socially challenging condition that is stressing the fabric of society. June Andrews of the University of Stirling is working to examine and address these issues. The slow decline of mental and physical functionality is a very expensive proposition for the health care system, adding another layer of incentives to maintain a high quality of life for as long as possible. Some interventions have proven successful. Turning the lights up, or providing large-font and pictoral labels around a living space, ensure that information loss is not the cause of mis-understandings. Unpatterend floors allow dementia patients to move easier, while quieter rooms prevent sonic confusion. These cheap, simple interventions are a good place to start in caring for an aging population.
Global political deadlock on climate change policy is one of the most intransigent walls facing the world’s decision makers. According to Ottmar Edenhofer, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, things have gotten even more challenging over the last few years, “as we are in the largest coal renaissance since the 1950s.” Cleaner renewable energy technologies have gotten cheaper and more efficient, but they have not yet crosse the threshold needed to displace coal in most applications. Economic projections are starting to take increasing temperatures into account, which slows growth (even in the face of increasing populations) by as much as 25-75%. Carbon capture and storage combined with lower emissions – all enabled by a price on carbon – are essential if drastic environmental changes are to be avoided.