Thursday, January 26, 2017

StoneCycling: Sustainable Building, Brick by Brick

by Sarah Dolan
Fall 2016 Intern

Reduce, reuse, recycle. The “Three Rs” remind us of the ever-increasing importance of sustainability. From little things like throwing a plastic bottle in the recycling bin rather than the trash can to larger lifestyle changes, environmental responsibility is something on many people’s minds. A company based in the Netherlands is working to build on (or, in their case, build with) our understanding of sustainable waste is.

Ward Massa and Tom van Soest both come from a design background, having graduated from the Design Academy Eindhoven, located in the Netherlands. Together, they founded StoneCycling in 2013. The company converts industrial waste from the ceramic, glass and insulation industries into new building materials. These “WasteBasedBricks” bring together sustainability and design. By taking waste that would ordinarily end up in a landfill and putting it to new use, StoneCycling is changing the way we recycle. “The problem is that waste is still seen as waste,” Massa said in an interview with the Smithsonian. “We think waste is an opportunity to make new things.”

Each one of the WasteBasedBricks has a different “recipe,” creating a unique look and feel. These recipes are kept secret, but the company claims “if you are really curious” you can give them a call. StoneCycling collaborates with architects and demolition companies to procure the waste. Their goal is to “erase the word waste from the dictionary” by showing that all materials can be repurposed and reused.

StoneCycling’s recent projects include a house in Rotterdam and a pavilion in Amsterdam, both of which are made completely from recycled—or “upcycled”—waste. The house is a four-story home built in the city center of Rotterdam. It is made from over 33,000 pounds of waste! StoneCycling’s pavilion was located in FabCity, a temporary campus in Amsterdam. It was built in honor of Amsterdam hosting the European Union in the spring of 2016, and was moved at the end of June. The pavilion, called the “TrueTalker,” had a campfire in the middle, with light peeking out between the spaced pattern of the recycled bricks. The campfire offered an invitation to sit down and share ideas, just as the politicians do when the European Union convenes.

Did You Know?

StoneCycling isn’t the first to come up with the idea of 100 percent recycled houses. Prince Edward Island in Canada is home to three “bottle houses”—each made out of thousands of glass bottles held together with cement. The first bottle house, known as the six gabled house was built over a six-month period in 1980, using around 12,000 bottles!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

It’s a Sine! Scientists See Math on the Mind

by Amanda Gutierrez
Fall 2016 Intern

As a student majoring in Writing, Literature & Publishing, it may come as a surprise that I loved math during high school. On par with my love of mathematics, was my love of science. Math and science are like two peas in a pod. But what’s the science behind math? Scientists have recently been conducting studies that examine the correlation of brain activity and mathematics.

One study located a specialized region in the brain that lights up like a firework when a subject is asked to work with numbers—as in Arabic numerals like 1, 2, 3, not words like one, two, three. This brain spot, discovered by scientists at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, is about one-fifth of an inch in diameter and is located in the same area of our brain that processes certain visual information. Although we all learn and process math uniquely, this Stanford study shows that there seems to be at least one portion of the brain specifically intended for numerical information.

Another study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, sought to further understand how the brain sees math. This study compared how sighted and non-sighted individuals process mathematical information. When all participants were asked to complete mathematical problems, the same region of the brain was activated.

But, for the non-sighted participants, so was another region—one used for comprehending visual information in sighted individuals. This area did not become active when sighted individuals were asked the same math problems. The more complex the math problem, the more activity the researchers saw in this area. The research indicates that the brain is capable of processing mathematical information in various areas, even if these areas seem to have originally been designated for another purpose.

A third study, conducted by researchers at the INSERM–CEA Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in France, compared the brains of advanced mathematicians and non-mathematicians. The study showed that an area of the mathematicians’ brains activated in response to math-based questions. That same area did not activate in the brains of those who were less mathematically inclined. It seems that by training to be mathematicians, these participants altered how their brains process math!

The area that lit up for the mathematicians seems to be connected to the areas our brains use when processing spatial and numerical information (such as recognizing that two grapes on a plate is more than one grape on a plate). Additionally, the study suggested that the brains of the mathematicians seemed to reallocate resources from other regions of the brain, such as those used for visual facial recognition. This further supports the suggestion of the brain’s plasticity as observed by the Johns Hopkins study.

Each of these three studies multiplies our understanding of mathematical brain function and how the mind works—hopefully, one day soon, research will all add up to a complete sum of mathematical understanding!

Did You Know?
An adult human brain has about 100 billion neurons. Development of these neurons starts at birth and continues into adulthood. Neurons, unlike many other types of cells, do not reproduce themselves. And some of the neurons in your brain today are the same ones that you had when you were born!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Make Way for Hedgehogs!

by Sarah Dolan
Fall 2016 Intern

Growing up I would sometimes pass afternoons in search of critters in my backyard. I would find all sorts of creatures indigenous to the Northeast. Garter snakes, worms and tiny red newts were all exciting finds. Had I grown up in Great Britain, it would have been very likely that I discovered a different animal, one very popular in British gardens these days: the hedgehog.

New research by the University of Hamburg suggests that Great Britain’s indigenous hedgehogs have changed their lifestyle to adapt to growing urban development. Hedgehog populations in urban areas are often higher than those of the surrounding countryside. Researchers tagged 14 hedgehogs with GPS temperature sensors and monitored them for 10 months. They found that urban hedgehogs travel far less at night than rural ones do—only 12 acres, compared to 123. Urban hedgehogs tend to sleep in private gardens during the day, then go out at around 9 p.m. after people and dogs have gone indoors. The study also found that urban hedgehogs follow the same hibernation patterns as rural ones, unaffected by human activity, noise and availability of food sources (read: trash) over the winter.

However, hedgehogs aren’t fully out of the woods. Their urban numbers have declined in Britain by one-third since 2000, and rural numbers have halved. Habitat destruction from farming and urban development is putting the species in further danger. As hedgehogs live in bushy areas with natural vegetation, urban gardens and parks are crucial to their survival.

In order to help preserve habitat for urban hedgehogs, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society has founded the Hedgehog Street initiative. The campaign encourages citizens to cultivate gardens that hedgehogs can use as a habitat. It also encourages citizens to cut small, 5-by-5-inch holes in the bottom of their fences so that hedgehogs can pass through. This helps to increase the animal’s roaming areas and grant them access to more areas around the city. (You can see a map tracking hedgehog sightings, as well as the “hedgehog highway,” here.) As of December 2016, there were over 41,000 registered “Hedgehog Champions” on the site.

Hopefully with the help of these conservation efforts these spiny animals will thrive and Great Britain’s beloved animal will be around for years to come.

Did You Know?
When encountering a strange smell, such as turpentine or tobacco, a hedgehog will lick it up. (Hedgehogs are very resistant to toxins.) The animal will then lather the substance over its quills. Scientists don’t know why the hedgehog does this. Some theories are that doing so disguises their scent from predators, poisons the tips of their spines or kills parasites that may be on the animal.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Crisper the Crunch, the Better the Taste

by Abbrianna MacGregor
Fall 2016 Intern

As a self-proclaimed impulse buyer, I am all too familiar with the trials, tribulations and joys attached to being a consumer. Many of us develop brand preferences and remain loyal to said brands for years. When you’re subconsciously reaching for that specific cereal on a routine grocery trip, do you ever stop to ask yourself what exactly it is about that brand that you enjoy so much? If you do, I’m impressed. If not, well . . . neither do I.

Despite most of us hardly ever pausing to consider the mechanics behind the products we know and love, there are some who specialize in it. One of these brand experts is Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University. Spence studies the sensory interaction that is responsible for creating our consumer experiences. His research in the field of consumer psychology and multisensory perception has made him an asset to many major brands.

Spence’s experiments inspire both awe and disbelief regarding consumers’ tendencies to be influenced by surrounding stimuli when interacting with a product. In an experiment that gained him recognition, he analyzed whether a potato chip would taste different if the sound of its crunch were altered. All test subjects were fed chips that did not vary much in terms of shape and texture—Pringles were chosen as the chip of choice due to their uniformity. Situated in front of a microphone inside a soundproof booth, the subjects could hear every bite they took through a set of headphones. From outside of the booth, Spence tweaked the crunch sound they were hearing by means of an amplifier and equalizer. Nearly all of the volunteers reported that the chips were different.

Further studies by Spence and other researchers have revealed additional fascinating consumer insights. Lab studies have shown that the color red suggests sweetness, that names with “k” sounds can be associated with a bitter taste and that curved shapes (be it the shape of the food or the plate it is served on) enhance the sweetness that the consumer experiences.

Spence believes these findings can explain certain product failures. Coca Cola’s special edition white cans failed due to consumer confusion with Diet Coke cans and complaints of a different taste from the usual red cans. Cadbury had a similar experience—when they changed the shape of their milk chocolate from square to curved, customers thought it was too sweet. The candy company also had little luck with a product that included “KOKO” in its name.

Although they may seem quirky, these discoveries may improve the quality of many consumer experiences. Heston Blumenthal, a notable chef Spence has been working with for over twelve years, combines food and music to heighten taste for diners at his restaurant. One of his dishes comes with an MP3 player programmed with beach sounds to accentuate the taste of the food.

Next time you sit down to eat, remember, it’s not just taste that is influencing your experience. That’s just the way the chip crunches.

Did You Know?

Charles Spence won an Ig Nobel Nutrition Prize for his potato chip study. The Ig Nobel Prizes “honor achievements that make people laugh, and then think.”

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Fashion of the Force: "Star Wars" Costumes on Display

by Sarah Dolan
Fall 2016 Intern

It’s impossible to write about the costumes of the Star Wars series without a rambling opening paragraph about Padmé (a.k.a Queen/Senator Amidala). The oft-debated prequels, are—in my opinion, at least—salvageable by one thing: Padmé. Besides the fact that she’s a peacekeeping galactic senator and very handy in battle, she rules the fashion world in literally every scene (like this one and this one and this one . . . and this one). Even when she’s on the run and disguised as a refugee she dresses like she’s ready for the runway. However, in the Star Wars films, Padmé is not the only character who is consistently dressed to impress.

The Denver Art Museum will be displaying over 70 original costumes from the Star Wars movies. The costumes on display are the actual costumes that were used during filming. The exhibit was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in collaboration with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and Lucasfilm Ltd. It will “closely examine the captivating process of costume design for iconic outfits featured in all seven films of the Star Wars series.” The exhibit will focus on the creative process and the “challenge of translating [Lucas’s] iconic characters into a dynamic reality.”

The traveling showcase started in January of 2015 at Seattle’s EMP Museum (now the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP) before moving in late 2015 to New York City’s Discovery Times Square museum. The New York exhibition ended in September of 2016, and moved on to the Denver Art Museum. The exhibition will continue to travel until 2019.

Even those who aren’t Star Wars fans will find something of interest in this exhibit. Visitors who appreciate fashion will be able to see the intricacy of the costume designs up close. A lot of the detail in these elaborate costumes can be lost onscreen in scenes with poor lighting or too much fast-paced action. This exhibition gives an opportunity to see these costumes up close and in person, allowing for a deeper appreciation of the design and craft of characters’ apparel that doesn’t get enough screen time in the films.

Costumes ranging from Princess Leia’s simple white robe to Darth Vader’s imposing body armor are on display. Seeing all of these pieces together in one place really brings out the scope and scale of the Star Wars films. It displays how the franchise has grown over the years, with costumes evolving from simple, minimalistic looks to grander, more elaborate attire. Just thinking about it is almost too much for my Star Wars–loving heart to bear.

Did You Know?

The cloak worn by actor Alec Guinness (a.k.a. Obi-Wan Kenobi) in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope was thought to be lost until it turned up in a costume warehouse in 2005. The article had been returned there after filming ended and was thrown in with a collection of monks’ robes. It was unknowingly rented out to customers and at one point worn by an extra in The Mummy. The cloak was unearthed during a routine stock check when an employee noticed the oddly shaped hood and put it on.