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Cyborg Cockroaches Are Now A Real Thing, and Other Surprising Discoveries of the Month

Five new things to feel smarter about this month.

Humans are constantly searching for answers.

Sometimes, they can be hard to find or seem far away.

Sometimes, they can be right in front of us — or show up when you least expect it.

That's why I love writing this monthly series called "Look What We Found!", where I round up five amazing discoveries that give us new perspective on the world. (Here was the previous edition.)

So what did the world teach us this month? Let's go!

Cyborg Cockroaches Are Now A Real Thing, and Other Surprising Discoveries of the Month

Photo credit via Riken

The robobugs are here!

Researchers have working on cyborg bugs for years, and now the folks at the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research figured out how to make cyborg cockroaches, by building "backpacks" of solar cells and other electronic components that mount on top of the creepers. This allows researchers to control the bugs' movements from afar, and over a long amount of time.

This raises a few questions:

Why would we want this? All sorts of good reasons — search-and-rescue missions, getting a closer look at dangerous or hazardous areas, and more. Though (creepily) it could also be used for spying.

How hard is this to do? Very hard. As the RIKEN team notes, every part was challenging — including keeping the battery charged. "Nobody wants a suddenly out-of-control team of cyborg cockroaches roaming around," they write.

Why not just make fully mechanical bugs? The publication Robotics Tomorrow offers a useful answer to this: Yes, we know how to build tiny robots, but insects can move in advanced ways that are hard to replicate with machines. Just think of all the tiny parts!

Cyborg Cockroaches Are Now A Real Thing, and Other Surprising Discoveries of the Month

Photo credit via Tim Maloney

When did humans start performing complex medical procedures?

The long-established theory goes like this: Around 10,000 years ago, humans settled down and started farming. This created a bunch of new health problems, which in turn inspired the development of new medicine and surgical procedures. By about 7,000 years ago, amputations began — which we know because we have the remains of a European Neolithic farmer, whose left forearm was cut off.

Therefore, the thinking goes, 7,000 years ago is when people developed advanced understandings of human anatomy and began complex medical procedures.

But now, a new set of remains blows that story up.

Scientists found the remains of a young person from Borneo, whose left foot had been amputated 31,000 years ago. The person survived and lived another six to nine years.

“This unexpectedly early evidence of a successful limb amputation suggests that at least some modern human foraging groups in tropical Asia had developed sophisticated medical knowledge and skills long before the Neolithic farming transition,” write researchers in Nature.

It's amazing how one data point can rewrite so much of what we know. Shows you just how much data there still is to find!

Cyborg Cockroaches Are Now A Real Thing, and Other Surprising Discoveries of the Month

Photo credit via NASA / JPL

Did life ever exist on Mars?

We're a little closer to answering that big question.

The Perseverance Mars rover has collected several fascinating rock samples from an ancient river delta, NASA recently revealed. Some of it contains organic material — which is to say, molecules that are often associated with life on Earth.

"The rocks that we have been investigating on the delta have the highest concentration of organic matter that we have yet found on the mission," said project scientist Ken Farley.

To be clear: Organic matter is not the same as signs of life. But they are "the building blocks of life," NASA says, "so this is all very interesting that we have rocks that were deposited in a habitable environment in a lake which carry organic matter."

The search goes on.

4. Brain Scans Can Tell Whether A Student Learned Something Better Than a Test Does

Cyborg Cockroaches Are Now A Real Thing, and Other Surprising Discoveries of the Month

Photo credit via Anna Shvets/Pexels

How can we tell if a student learned something?

For as long as we've known, there's been only one answer to this: Test 'em.

But Georgetown University recently published results that argue something else: Brain scans are — in at least some areas — better at testing students' learning ability than traditional exams.

The researchers followed students at public high schools in Virginia, as they learned spacial thinking skills. When researchers scanned the students' brains using MRI, and could see the brains change — and could then use those scans to predict how well the students were actually learning.

Interestingly, the scans were better than tests at actually predicting whether a student retained the information, and whether they could then use what they learned in other settings.

Side note: People often say something "changes the brain" in scary ways — like, "social media is changing your brain!" But this study is a good example of how stupid that claim is. Literally everything changes your brain, including learning at school. (I explore this subject more in this episode of my podcast.)

Cyborg Cockroaches Are Now A Real Thing, and Other Surprising Discoveries of the Month

Photo credit via Yasmine Phillips/Curtin University

According to the journal Science, researchers have discovered a 380 million year old heart fossil from a prehistoric fish. This is the oldest three-dimensionally preserved heart ever found from a vertebrate.

Soft tissues are hardly ever preserved as fossils. They typically decay or are eaten, and only the bones or shell remain. But these newly discovered samples had preserved body parts like the stomach, intestines and livers, as well as the heart.

“As a paleontologist who has studied fossils for more than 20 years, I was truly amazed to find a 3D and beautifully preserved heart in a 380-million-year-old ancestor,” said lead researcher Kate Trinajstic, in a statement.

Endorsements Don't Sound Better Than This

Wow — I was floored by this generous endorsement of my book by Bar Rescue host Jon Taffer.

I've known Jon for years, and have learned a ton from him. He's as sharp as they come, and also endlessly professional. Fun story: I was once interviewing him on camera for an award he won, and as he spoke, he accidentally knocked over a glass of wine on his desk. But you'd have never known, because the guy didn't break stride. Didn't even stumble over his sentence, as wine poured everywhere. Now that is focus!

You can pick up a copy of my book — recommended by Jon Taffer! — here.

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